Why Religion Sucks, Part One

This whole kerfluffle about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” pisses me off for a lot of reasons, not least of which it forces me to actually give a fuck about the rights of believers in one ancient Middle Eastern fantasy cult, which are under attack by believers in a competing ancient Middle Eastern fantasy cult.  Christ vs. Muhammad in a no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all Clash of Civilizations!  And in Jesus’ corner, Pam Geller, the Yenta who would be Queen(s), who found common cause with a bunch of Holy Rollers that, a generation or two ago, would at best have been denying her access to their country clubs, and at worst have given her a one-way train ticket to a picturesque part of Poland.

Of course, the whole “controversy” feeds into the paranoid delusions of right-wing trolls and their obsession with Obama as “the other.”  The progression of conservative pathology from the Birchers of the ’60s to the Tea Baggers of the ’10s has found its virulent apotheosis in the election of a mixed-race, somewhat Liberal President, whose father was a Kenyan Muslim (actually an atheist by the time he came to the U.S.) and whose mother was a white proto-hippie, her mind permanently warped by an excessively permissive and liberal upbringing, to the point where she could do the unthinkable and marry, and breed, with a foreign-born black.  With or without the Muslim aspect, Obama would be attacked, as Clinton was, as Carter was, as not a “true” Christian, because of his refusal to use the coded language of the bigoted minority that passes as “real” Americans, as non-church-goers Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did to perfection.  But Obama, because of his name and his ancestry, has that little bit extra that causes people like Franklin Graham, son of Billy “Pastor to Presidents” Graham, to add a frisson of racism to his anti-Muslim bigotry by saying that “the seed of Islam” had passed to Obama through his father.  “Now it’s obvious that the president has renounced the Prophet Muhammad and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ,” the seed of Billy Graham continued, with a wink.  “That’s what he says he has done.  I cannot say that he hasn’t.  So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said.”  As far as I know, the rumors about Franklin Graham’s proclivity for fucking Indonesian prostitutes are untrue.  At least, that’s what he says, and I have no reason not to believe him.

The idea that the people behind the “Ground Zero Mosque” are giving grieving 9/11 victims and their families a giant “Fuck You,” much like the “Obama is a Muslim” story, is transparently part of the right-wing narrative which has as its ultimate goal the downfall of anything resembling progressive or liberal policy in America.  The ludicrousness of the argument can be seen in this article, which includes a profile of the current owner of the building, Sharif El-Gamal, a 37-year-old Brooklyn-born Muslim, who explains how the site for the “mosque” was chosen:

“Listen,” said El-Gamal, “do you have any clue how the Manhattan real-estate market works, what is involved? People seem to think that we picked that building to make some kind of point. But that is simply insane. This is New York; no matter who you are, you just don’t choose a building, move in, and take over. Do you know how many places I looked at? I looked at Chambers Street. I looked at Vesey Street, Broadway, Greenwich Street, Warren Street, Murray Street. Maybe half a dozen more, I can’t even remember now. It was only after all that that Park Place came up. Even then, it was the most grueling negotiation of my life. So many times I told myself, Wow, this just isn’t worth it. One minute the deal was on, eight months later it was off. The whole thing almost drove me nuts.”

After describing his own 9/11 experience, El-Gamal continues:

“That is when it hit me: We needed a building. There were a lot of Muslims downtown, and the places we did have were not pleasant; they were basements, holes-in-the-wall. The message was beautiful, but the surroundings were shabby. They were not places we could feel proud of. So I made up my mind. If this was a real-estate problem, that’s what I did, real estate. I am very good at real estate. Also, I’d undergone a change of life. My business has grown, I have two wonderful children. I signed my daughter up for swimming lessons at the Jewish Community Center at Amsterdam and 76th Street. It is an excellent facility, very welcoming, modern. Then I knew we didn’t need just a mosque, we needed a cultural center, something that took into account the entire aspect of life: our lives as Muslim-Americans in New York. So when you ask me why I would buy a place so close to ground zero, I say, I wasn’t thinking of that. I saw a building. A building that would fulfill a need. I spoke to Imam Feisal about it, and he agreed.”

But is the fact that that a group of Muslims want to erect a community center which would include a mosque at the site which formerly housed a Burlington Coat Factory (truly a “different” kind of department store!), where Muslims had already been praying for months, really crucial to this story?  Would the same furor have arisen if the Saudis had purchased the building for a consulate, or mission?  The religious aspect, of course, plays into the whole conflation by the right of specific Islamic terrorism with Islam in general, with no differentiation between the average, run-of-the-mill Muslim worshipper and the jihadis who destroyed the World Trade Center.  Of course, no Christians would accept guilt-by-association with this guy, or this one, or the myriad of others who had committed acts of violence because they were called by God to “further the ends of justice.”  Those people were lone wolves, not part of the Christian mainstream; and anyway, Muslim extremists are just a whole ‘nother animal:  “But the Christian right’s responsible reaction to the death of George Tiller should put to rest the lie that Judeo-Christian extremists are anywhere near as numerous or dangerous as those of the Muslim variety.”

People have enough reasons to hate each other on a secular basis; adding religion to the mix just inflames the passions of true believers and ratchets up the intensity of the existing left/right conflict.  If you can’t convince a birther that Obama was actually born in the U.S., and actually has a valid birth certificate, how do you convince a dyed-in-the-wool religionist that his favored creed is not actually under attack by the forces of evil, i.e., people who don’t believe in God the same way he does?  Whether religion is the root cause of all the conflicts in the world is debatable; what is indisputable is that religious fervor added to existing animosities tends to blow things up real good.

I really, truly have no use for religion.  I grew up the son of Catholics who went to church regularly, as they had done since birth, but who seemed to embody none of the supposed virtues or fruits of Christian salvation which the nuns taught me about in Sunday School.  Petty jealousy, envy, greed, intolerance, and above all, guilt – those I saw plenty of.  And in Church and with the nuns there seemed to be an emphasis on ritual, tradition, form, obedience – all of the things that kept believers in line, and nothing to answer any of the questions or doubts I was starting to have.  There were pre-packaged prayers, sort of like Hallmark Greeting Cards to God, which relieved us of having to actually form our own thoughts or delve too deeply into our own fears.  We learned about saints, and holy days, and sacraments, but none of it seemed relevant in the least to my developing mind and body.

I can remember, as a child, becoming horribly afraid of death, and what happened after – I had no confidence that I would avoid the fate of the wicked who had not sufficiently repented for their sins, because after all, my imperfections and sins were plainly evident to Almighty God, and He would surely not include me in the everlasting happiness of the blessed.

As I grew older and more disenchanted with the dogmatic certainty of true believers, I began to have dreams about the finality of death, of lying in a grave, feeling my body slowly dissolve as insects and microorganisms slowly and inexorably ate away my physical being, while my consciousness seeped away into the nothingness of eternity.  I prayed desperately for a sign from Jesus or somebody to tell me that there was something more after my body ceased to be; some sign that death was not the irrevocable ending that I had come to believe it was.  These prayers were added to the many I had offered over the years, the constant pleadings with God to help me overcome all the torments of a miserable childhood.  And, as was the case with those that had come before, these prayers were also unanswered.

As I got older, and learned more and more about all of the things done in the name of God – all the brutality, avarice, greed, and destruction that Christians since Constantine had visited upon their fellow men – I wondered about the complete disconnect between the beatific contemplations of Aquinas, Assisi, and Augustine, and the grisly reality of Crusades, pogroms, and death camps.  I saw history as an endless succession of wars between sects, battles waged against apostasy, clashes of civilization between Christian kings and Muslim caliphs.  Christians massacred Jews, Turks murdered Armenians, Muslims and Hindus spattered blood across Gandhi’s dream of a unified India.

I don’t have any illusions about Islam.  I’m sure that it is capable of being every bit as bloodthirsty and malevolent as any other religion; clearly, the extremists of that faith, in response to what they see as hundreds of years of Western, Christian encroachment on their homelands, have proven that they are willing to kill innocents in order to to advance their agenda.  In this, they are no different from any other religious group that feels threatened by outside forces which they cannot control.

What is different about this story is how the right in America has refused to make any distinctions between mainstream Islam and its most extremist followers:

“Muslims are the first immigrant group that has ever come to this country with a ready-made model of society and government they believe to be superior to what we have here,” Spencer told me. The thinking was clear to anyone who took the trouble to study the plan, the blogger and author of Stealth Jihad contended. “Muhammad said, ‘When you meet the unbelievers, invite them to accept Islam; if they refuse, offer them the dhimma—second-class status—and, if they refuse that, go to war with them.’ That’s it. Conversion, subjugation, or war. Three steps. Conversion, subjugation, or war … That’s what Muhammad said. And in chapter 33, verse 21 of the Koran, it says Muhammad is the excellent example for the Muslim, you ask any Muslim and they’ll tell you that: That is nonnegotiable, what Muhammad said goes, and that’s not some hijacker extremist Islam, that’s mainstream … This is how it is, you don’t need a bomb. I don’t think Feisal is ever going to blow anything up, because that’s not his game; his game is a societal, cultural penetration … ”

People ascribe the worst motives to their enemies; and so a group of Muslims who want to build a community center are accused of wanting to take a “victory lap” to celebrate the “hellish victory of the global jihad.”  Yes, Ms. Geller is certifiably insane; but what’s with all the Republicans (and some Democrats) who have joined her crusade?  Why are they giving in to the demogogic urge to turn this into a zero-sum, us-vs.-them scenario?  One can understand why Fox News has pushed this from the fever swamps of the right blogosphere into the national spotlight, but what’s Howard Dean’s excuse?  I mean, he’s not even running for office, which is the only thing that can plausibly explain why Harry Reid is being a schmuck.

Here’s Dean:

There’s a growing number of American Muslims. I think most of those Muslims are moderate. I hope that, I hope that they’ll have an influence on Islam throughout the world, because Islam is really back in the 12th century in some of these countries, like Iran and Afghanistan, where they’re stoning people to death. And that can be fixed. And the way it’s fixed is not by pushing Muslims away. It’s by embracing them and have them become just like every other American, Americans who happen to be Muslims. So the way you do that is to integrate people into the fabric of the United States, which I think is what this congregation wants to do. But I do think that we ought to work out a compromise so that everybody is accommodated by this.

So, Howard Dean, who is commonly thought to be on the religiously-tolerant, left side of the political spectrum, basically believes that Islam as a whole is a religion stuck in the medieval past, and that while Christianity has been able advance to the point where public stonings and witch hunts are a thing of the past (for the most part, anyway), Islam still has a way to go before it can occupy the same public space.  Until they do (and until they become “just like every other American”), Muslims can’t partake in the same religious freedoms that the rest of us take for granted.

Like I said, religion just fucks everything, and everyone, up.

Note:  I’m trying to catchup on my reading, and have both “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens and “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins in the queue.  I will be writing about both books, and further thoughts on religion, in future posts in this series.

UPDATE:  Yes, people like Reid and Dean have drunk the kool-aid of krazy, but for the most part Democrats have been strong in their support for the “mosque” being built where its’ supporters want.  Of course, Republicans are nearly unanimously opposed (for the obvious reasons), with one or two notable exceptions, such as the sainted Dr. Paul.  Not so much his serpent’s tooth son, however.

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9 Responses to Why Religion Sucks, Part One

  1. StringonaStick says:

    Hey, you and I had the same childhood, except I was surrounded by hardcore Presbyterians (can’t be arsed to find the correct spelling; who cares?). My first impression of the catholic mass a friend took me to in junior high was that all that up/down knealing stuff sure worked to keep the congregation awake. Other than that, no sale. I recall being taken to the doctor as a kid when I grew permanently glum over the concept of death because religion wasn’t solving that particular spiritual crisis. Apparently if you are a bookish kid you gain enough knowledge of the hypocracy of all religions and human endeavor fairly quickly.

    The so called “9/11 mosque” controversy is some sad and revealing shit; comments about this issue from people you don’t know well is a real easy way to sort the braindead from the functional. I recall reading Orcinus (I think, or directed elsewhere by) describing the steps a society takes to become fascist, and damn, we are this * close. I’ve read a few who figure that once they use their newly assembled teabaggy, anti-nonwhite hordes (“see ya Xiatians, we’ve got a new boyfriend now!”) to get the rethugs back in power in 2010 and especially 2012, they’ll dial these groups back a bit. I’m not so sure they’ll be able to; that bit of video on various sites today of the protest in NYC is a case in point. Fox/Beck/etc have to keep uping the ante to keep the audience locked in and raged=up, and how much further is there to go before someone gets stomped to death by a mob at a protest, or worse? We’re damned close now. When even the so-called main stream press adopts the 9/11 mosque title, that leaves very little room for a fact to escape into the open air; quite frankly I don’t think they care as long as their cushy jobs aren’t threatened. Maybe seeing some really scary mob action will get their attention. Maybe I’m deluded too.

    Like you, I vary between cautious optimism and total belief that the American experiment is over, we’re just poking the fire now to see how high the flames will go.

    • There was an article in the NYT today about the non-controversy regarding Ken Mehlman coming out as gay, which seems to be saying that homophobia was all well and good as a wedge issue to run on in 2004-2008, but now that Obama is president, Republicans are much more focused on the awful economy (which they created and which they blame on Democrats). This supposedly “reflects how the country has shifted.” Of course, all it really shows is that Republicans have found other issues with which to rile up their base, and the “ground zero mosque” story is one of them.

      Those of us with long enough memories will note that the Terry Schiavo fiasco was another one of those issues, terribly important to Republicans at the time, that vanished without a trace not long afterwards. I have a feeling this one will, too. The “Obama-destroyed-the-economy” one, however, is one that probably has legs, since it is backed by really deep pocketed assholes, and it is in those assholes’ economic interests that this Democratic President and Congress be weakened as much as possible, if not outright defeated. The religious hysteria, like the gay bashing and right-to-life hysteria that preceded it, are just convenient distractions. What they’re really after is a loosening of government reins on their ability to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible, negative consequences be damned.

  2. Pingback: Why Religion Sucks, Part One | Notes from Underground | James Collier

  3. StringonaStick says:

    The economy issue has very strong legs, and the dems had damned well better smarten up and start pointing out the congressional obstruction that is keeping us in this state (ha, ha; I know). Here in Colorado the tea party moron who won the rethug senatorial primary (over the well-known, party approved lobbyist) is up by 9 points over the dem (Bennet) appointed to take Salazar’s position when Salazar was tapped for Dept of Interior. I have to say, that shocks me; this state went solidly dem in the last election. The only thing I can point to is a crappy economy, and Colorado is doing great compared to most states; which leads me to the underlying issue the rethugs are picking at like a big fat scab: fear. They play that thing like a fine old violin, and sadly, it works.

    • I was under the impression that Bennet was a Blue Dog, and so wasn’t getting much support from the left. Does that play into it?

      It’ll be interesting to see how many of the Teabagger-approved candidates end up wining in November. It’s one thing to win the Republican primary, which only requires an energized base of know-nothings to come out in force, and to win over Independents and Dems in the general.

  4. Sharon Brown says:

    talk about fantasyland,i was raised a christian scientist.never got immunized against any deadly thing until the age of 16 when i changed school systems.my dad was a lapsed catholic from the old country -dead now for 43 years -who had probably been sexually abused by a priest somewhere,sometime.i have very strong intimations that he had abused my now-deceased brother up until my bro moved out at age 24.Sexual abuse in the name of religion–yet another scourge.
    i have no faith in this country anymore and i don’t want to feel that way but the media has been hijacked & you can’t find the truth or even a semblance of clarity from any usual sources. (you,commie, are an unusual source.)
    my quixotic self-perception simply thrives whenever i consider myself an actual reader of someone who calls himself commieatheist.I JUST LOVE WHO I PERCEIVE MYSELF TO BE. i can’t get over that at all. and here you thought it was your ideas.

    • Maybe we were separated at birth?

      Sorry about your dad – I must admit that I never experienced anything close to abuse at the hands of a priest, or knew of anyone in my social group who did. The Catholic community where I grew up was pretty much a minority, and outside of church my family didn’t spend any time in that circle.

      Growing up as a Christian Scientist must have been…interesting. That’s one of those strange sects that doesn’t really get included in the mix when people (and the media) throw around the word “Christian,” along with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, Quakers, etc. Catholics were in that group once. There’s a willingness to reduce Christianity to right-wing Protestant fundamentalists, and a failure to differentiate between types of Christians and the widely varying creeds and political leanings they have. To me it’s all bunk, but the fact that the media views Christians as a monolithic group that is anti-abortion and anti-birth control, pro-patriarchy, pro-war, and totally Republican just makes it harder to fight back against the bullshit. But I would just as soon see all of it go away and never darken our doors again.

  5. StringonaStick says:

    Bennet = slightly blue doggy, but he did vote for health care reform and has been OK on other issues I care about. The guy running against him is a teaparty crazy from the word go, and such a classic one too. Unfortunately there is another citizens initiative (paid for by the extreme wingers from Colo springs) on the ballot that will kill any ability to raise taxes, ever, here and that will get the rethugs out in force to vote in November. I believe that was the plan when the initiative was floated in the first place.

    • It will be interesting to see how the Senate races in Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, and Florida play out, since those are the ones where the Teabaggers got their favored candidates into the general over the establishment Republican candidates. If they manage to win two or more of those seats, then the no-nothings can be considered a viable force. If they lose all four, then they can be written off as another fringe movement that helped the continuing Republican slide into irrelevance.

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