Time to Divorce God from Religion

Muslims Fall For It Yet Again

The recent, hardly edifying, furore that followed the offensive cartoons about Islam and the prophet Muhammad prompted me to think about God and his association with some religions. Why did Muslims overreact so violently, and in so doing helped to reinforce the negative image that their opponents work so hard to maintain? Surely they understood that the primary intention behind the publication of these cartoons was to elicit precisely the reaction that erupted worldwide.

Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten (JP) commissioned the twelve cartoons in the name of free speech. It was suggested that his Zionists and neoconservatives leanings might have had something to do with his decision. The cartoons might have been intended as a means to promote the idea of ‘clash of civilisations’ which has been quoted often as an explanation for a war of terror essentially focused on Islam. (http://mathaba.net/0_index.shtml?x=508448)

There was a later twist to the story. When Rose was challenged to republish offensive cartoons about the Holocaust printed by an Iranian newspaper he gave the impression that he might be prepared to do that. Free speech or not, this was too much for editor-in-chief Carsten Juste who decided to send Rose on indefinite leave “because he needed a break from work.” (Guardian, 10 February 2006)

The question remains, though, why did so many Muslims take the bait? It is my view that the central place allocated to God in some, otherwise sensible reforming movements, predisposes them to act irrationally under certain circumstances. This is not restricted to Islam, but the trait is currently being used adroitly against Islam by those who want to promote their own God-driven agendas.

The call to dissociate God from religion sounds absurd. However, further analysis would suggest, I hope, that the notion is not as curious as it might seem on first inspection.

The concepts of God and religion are not the same

Scientists have managed to take us back to within fractions of a second of the Big Bang that brought the universe into being. This is a creditable, but vain, endeavour to discover the mysteries of our existence. I suspect that questions about what was there before the Big Bang and what, or who, designed the laws of physics that set the process in motion will not be answered fully. In this context I am quite willing to accept that there is a mystery that is beyond our comprehension, and it is plausible to call this ‘God’.

Ancient civilisations invoked the gods as means to curb the worst aspects of human nature. Priests and princes quickly perceived other benefits offered by this package. They gained considerable power and wealth over others in the name of whatever god happened to be in fashion at the time. The promise was there all the while: if you behaved yourself and allowed the elite to enjoy massive privileges here on earth, then you will eventually enter heaven. The deal involved more than this: it required that ordinary people should not enquire too much into the mysteries that surround the gods. Obscure rights, odd symbols, cloistered sacred places, unintelligible languages were introduced to enhance the special position of priests and princes. This model has changed little over time, although some societies have invented other means to regulate the masses, often in tandem with religion.

But religions have, for some people, many wholesome and positive aspects and it would be a pity if general concept of religion were to slowly implode. Anyone who has suffered serious illness or stress and sought solace in the serene environment of a sacred building, a religious piece of music, dipping into the exceptional wisdom of the prophets, or reading of exquisite books such as the Qur’an, Torah or Bible, would readily understand the value of religion. Quiet conversations with selfless religious workers can produce miraculous results in today’s hectic and materialistic life. Moreover, in many societies, religion is the main source of social, health, and educational services. Religion goes off the rails when ‘God’ is invoked to frighten people into submission. Then the genius of the exceptional religious philosophers and reformers is diluted and diverted into means of command and control, by the religious establishement, rather than guidance and persuasion to be taken willingly.

Concepts Change in Time

Auguste Comte (1798-1857), identified three stages that human beings went through in trying to make sense of life: a theological era, a metaphysical era, and a scientific era. In the first phase, people’s behaviour in society was ordained by ‘god’. His (her?) agents on earth, priests of various descriptions, transmitted, and interpreted, his injunctions and cajoled their ‘flock’ to adhere to the rules on pain of eternal damnation. In the second phase, human rights and modes of behaviour were placed on a higher plane than the whim of rulers or priests, or even the gods. In the final stage, Comte argued, the task of ordering behaviour within society was turned into a positivist activity regulated by science. People can come to sensible solutions to their social needs and challenges.

In many societies nowadays the fear of ‘god’ does not have the same impact as laws determined by mere mortals. The benefit of this arrangement is that it could be modified in line with changing circumstances, and, given democratic elections, leaders could be replaced to enact more acceptable laws.

Other societies, for instance some Islamic communities, are still at the point were laws are the province of God. As Qutb asserted, the exhortation that ‘there is no god but God’ “penetrates through the whole system of life…Islam is a practical religion…not a ‘theory’…Muslim community…commits itself to obey none but Allah, denying all other authority, and that challenges the legality of any law not based on this belief.” (About Shari’a Law, Qutb, Milestones, 27)

This arrangement has an obvious drawback: how does one distinguish what God truly ordained, accepting the proposition that God did actually make his views clear to people somehow, from what human beings (priests, rabbis, mullahs, etc.) introduced out of good intentions or as means to acquire and exercise power? In my youth I attended Christian, Jewish, and Muslim schools. Teachers at each school asserted their religion has the true version of what God wanted. But they can’t all be correct. So at any time numerous innocent people will go straight to hell simply because they were born in the wrong religious camp. This seem highly unjust and certainly not what a benevolent and merciful God would do.

The arrangement confronts believers with another problem: leaders who have to manage in a real interconnected world can never be right. Hence the constant turmoil in some Islamic and Middle Eastern countries.

But the principal drawback is the heightened sensitivity that an association of God with religion engenders. Any criticism by opponents is seen as a flagrant insult to God himself, or those anointed by God. Seen within the traditional teaching adopted by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, any such transgression is perceived as an affront that requires robust response. The recent controversy about the cartoons about Islam are only the latest episode. The other two religions are just as easily offended. One example concerns the protest that erupted when someone suggested that Jesus was a homosexual. Jews were offended when it was argued that Moses borrowed his idea of the one God when he, supposedly, was a priest in the service of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. Akhenaten who discarded the various gods worshipped in Egypt up to his reign in favour of one god.

Curious Commandments

God has been cited as the source of some questionable rules and regulations. For many years the female members of my family had to cover their heads when they went to church. Later, that requirement was quietly dropped. Why? was God’s will misinterpreted? Men and women are still segregated in synagogues. Why? Will this rule change in future? Women in some Muslim countries have to go about suffocated under layers of black cloth that only allow their eyes to be seen. Sometimes even that exposure is considered a violation of God’s laws. Why?

The matter assumes Kafkaesque proportions when other restrictions are taken into account. Jordanian women, supposedly, voted by a majority of over 70 percent in support of the notion that it is in accordance with Islamic laws that men should beat their wives when they ‘misbehave’. Why? And who punishes men when they misbehave? In a similar vote, equally suspect, women in Saudi Arabia believed it is sacrilegious for women to drive a car. A few years ago, a woman called a phone-in religious programme on an Arabic station. She was seeking guidance because her husband indulged in certain sexual practices that she did not enjoy. The person providing help and advice was taken aback by the stupidity of the question. Did she not realise that ‘it is according to Gods law that women were there to be enjoyed by their husbands in whatever way they saw fit?’

When one looks at the freedoms enjoyed by women during Muhammad’s time in the early days of Islam one is inevitably led to the conclusion that the later elaboration of God’s laws is open to question. And Islam has a long and honourable tradition of research (Ijtihad) into what is and is not lawful. In other words, God’s law was open to further elucidation. However, Ijtihad is now frowned and has to be pursued by stealth. This is a pity. Religions, by far the most effective reforming movements, should be living ideas that adapt to changing circumstances and needs.

The transient nature of God’s law is not confined to Islam. The Christian church’s views on many issues have changed or are in the process of changing in a big way; birth control, abortion, homosexuality, women priests, etc. The Ten Commandments, revealed by God himself to Moses on Mount Sinai and engraved on two tablets of stone, have been the subject of continual debate and interpretation (see Wikipedia on the Internet). Even the ‘simple’ command not to kill or murder has been roundly qualified to make it possible to adhere to in real life.

What does all the above mean? It suggests that if God’s laws are open to so much amendment. Are they man-made? If this proposition were accepted then it might be that the time has come to put some distance between the concept of a unknowable and gentle God who allowed us to enjoy the pleasures of being alive, on the one hand, and ‘religious teachings’ that are man-made and subject to considerable revision in interpretation and observance, on the other hand.

Why is it desirable to effect the above separation of powers?

‘Eastern’ religions, as in the case of Buddhism, have acquired some popularity in recent decades because they seem to be less oppressive. They are gaining ground due to the relative absence of power-craved leaders who see religion as a means to an end focused on acquiring domination over others in the name of God. Humankind has been ill-served by these people and the time has come to call their bluff: their mastery has nothing to do with divine forces. Their long lists of instructions and restrictions contain within their sensible veneer many ‘laws’ designed to achieve control and privilege.

The suspect war on Iraq did succeed in overthrowing a wicked and incompetent regime, but through accident or design it was highjacked by religious fanatics who have taken an advanced country back to the middle ages. The furore that accompanied the publication of offensive cartoons about Islam is in the same mould. They were published by people with a certain religious agenda but in the name of free speech, and they elicited a predictable response that did nothing to advance the cause of Islam. Throughout this farce the name of God was liberally bandied about. If there were a God in heaven, and I have no idea whether there is or is not such a presence, then surely He is mightily baffled by his creation and their wayward ways.

The two concepts of God and of religion are perfectly acceptable and beneficial. Surprisingly, their association does not produce good results. Let us retain both ideas, but let us keep them separate.

NOTE: A friend, having read this article, sent me an article published in the Journal of Religion and Society, volume 7, 2005:

Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look

By Gregory S. Paul, Baltimore, Maryland. Available on ffrf.org/uploads/timely/Religion&Society.pdf