Thursday, May 31, 2012

Religious Right Wrongs All Americans


Defaced sight at the proposed mosque site.
In keeping with the Christian Right’s continuing attacks on other Americans’ religious freedom, religious activists have convinced a judge in Tennessee to order work stopped on a local mosque on the dubious grounds that “officials didn't give the public adequate notice before the meeting where it was approved.”

Really?  No one knew?  The meeting was jammed by accident?  People happened to wander in when they saw the free cookies and punch?

State law merely requires that local governments provide "adequate public notice" for meetings.  The word “adequate” is not defined in the statute, and the meeting was announced, as usual, by advertisement in a local newspaper and on the paper’s website – exactly what was done for all such public meetings.

County attorney Josh McCreary told the court that the mosque approval “was a routine matter at the time.”  He added that the intense opposition arose only after the committee correctly and through normal legal processes approved construction of a religious building to serve the growing number of Muslims in the region.

"In this instance, everything they are relying on to prove this is a matter of pervasive public importance came after the lawsuit was filed," he testified.

Attorney Gadeir Abbas (left) with Council on American-Islamic Relations also saw right through that farce.  "The judge's ruling is apparently based on a fictitious `heightened standard for public notice when Muslims are involved,’" he said in a public statement.

This would be a minor brouhaha if wasn’t part of an ongoing assault of the religious rights of all Americans, regardless of their beliefs.  Muslims have been a particular target, including the attempt to block a mosque from being erected near the site of the World Trade Center.  The abuse was especially acute in Tennessee where hearings on the proposed Murfreesboro mosque were used as a pretext to attack Muslims.

While opponents duplicitously insist their objection to the mosque did not hinge on religion, their attorneys badgered witnesses speaking on behalf of the mosque with questions about the legitimacy of Islam – gee, it’s only the second largest religion in the world and growing rapidly.  They also were asked if the mosque was part of a conspiracy to replace the Constitution with Islamic law.  The irony of Christian opponents trying to destroy the First Amendment in that Constitution apparently escaped them.

One resident testified in court that Islam supports “beheadings, forced conversion and pedophilia.”  No, it doesn’t, but that does sound like menu offerings – minus beheading – served up by a prominent Christian institution.

To make sure no possible recourse was overlooked, there was also the requisite bomb threat against the mosque site, offered up no doubt by a peace-loving Christian inspired by nonreligious ideals.

The religious hatred immediately brings to mind the intense persecution of multiple groups in Germany.  Pastor Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller put it into words:

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Niemöller
There are debates over the words and the actual author, but not the concept.  The warning appears on the wall of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  Versions also have been reproduced in holocaust museums in Virginia, Florida and Israel.

In this case, there are plenty of non-fanatical religious conservatives around to object, even in Tennessee.  For example, a local march of 400 people against the mosque was matched by the same number in favor.

Besides, there is absolutely no reason not to allow construction of a religious building by a legitimate religion.

1)      It’s legal.  It is proposed for an area zoned for such a structure and was approved by all requisite committees.

2)      It falls under constitutional guidelines.  The Puritans who founded Massachusetts came here for religious freedom.  That basic concept is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It is the cornerstone of our country and the one thing that separates us from other lands.

3)      Denying it creates problems.  Refusing to allow a mosque simply drives a wedge between Muslims and American society.  Ironically, that’s exactly what the terrorists are trying to do: they believe Islam is the superior belief and wanted to rid it of Western influence.  That puts opponents of the mosque on the side of the terrorists. 

4)      An attack against one religion is an attack against all.  Who said that a successful Christian Right won’t go after some other religion's construction plans next?

Our country has always been inclusive: there’s room for everyone.   The Statue of Liberty proclaims that in the immortal words of Emma Lazarus (no relation):

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Isolating one element of society based totally on their religion debases all Americans.  This is not a Christian nation.  It is a religion-free nation, deliberately and wisely created that way to avoid this kind of sectarian fighting.

The Christian Right may not believe it, but that’s why there are laws to protect us from them.  It may take the Federal Government in this case to enforce them on behalf of all Americans.

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.


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.

Bashir
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.

Nadarkhani
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.

Williams
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.



Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jesus Showing Up in Lots of Places


Guerda's smudge
A Florida woman named Guerda Maurice recently insisted that she had captured an image of Jesus on her cellphone.  She was trying to take pictures of “The Bachelor” TV show and, when she checked them, on one there was this white kind of smudge that she was sure was the splitting image of the Son of God.

Who else?

After all, the image (right) appeared bearded, wearing a white robe and on her cellphone.  It couldn’t be anyone else.


After all, Jesus has nothing better to do than spend his days superimposed on a TV program.  Better late than never, since he was never portrayed in any manner during his lifetime. 

Paul, the propagandist of the early Christian faith, never described him.  He did say Jesus was born of a woman in Galilee in the normal way and did nothing in his life until being chosen by God to be the messiah while dangling on the cross, but not a hint of height, hair color or anything else. Paul even described himself, but never once provided a detail about Jesus’ looks.  No one else did either.

Early Christians tried to make up for that gap by drawing their own images.  One early wall etching depicts a man with an animal’s head.  That resembles one of Egypt’s animal-human gods, like Horus or Osiris, but is no help in determining Jesus’ true looks.

Christians also borrowed pictures from the Romans.  Apollo, the Good Shepherd, a young man often shown with a sheep over his shoulders, (left) was a favorite and remains so today.

The Romans had plenty such illustrations, including ones for every emperor and for many social and political leaders.  Their faces remain preserved in statues, busts, images etched into stone memorials and other ways.  Jesus simply didn’t receive such immortality.

Modern attempt to depict Jesus.
Naturally, the lack of any authentic depiction has left each generation free to suggest a likeness.  Mosaics and paintings though the ages have presented Jesus in the clothing and appearance of the time period when the art was produced.  As a result, he has been shown bearded, clean shaven, light-skinned, swarthy, crowned, with long and short hair and so on.  Even a few white pixels on a camera.

At right is an image of Jesus  created by modern scientists based on the remains of a Jewish man who lived around the time of Jesus.  It didn't win any converts.

All it takes for us to identify a face is 12 different elements.  That triggers part of our brain to organize those elements into an image.

Maurice “saw” Jesus because our brains are hardwired to “see” human images in everything.  We need that ability since humans, unlike animals, have distinct facial patterns.  Two tigers look alike; two humans don’t.  As a result, no one really looks exactly like someone else, except some identical twins.  To separate friend from stranger, then, we need specialized abilities.

It also comes in handy to see faces in clouds, men in the moon and religious figures in electronic images.

That doesn’t mean that Jesus couldn’t have posed for Maurice’s camera, but given the number of people claiming to see Jesus in bread mold, cliff sides and the like, it’s safe to say the Son of God is spending an awful lot of time having his picture taken these days.

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.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Skeptism Bedevils Modern Revelations


Long
What a difference a few years make, especially regarding our feelings toward religion today.
A few days ago, a Texas teacher was escorted from her classroom after proclaiming that she was married to God, who was going to destroy the world Dec. 12.  However, she assured the students that Jesus had set up another planet where they would be always 25 years old and where money did not exist.

According to officials there, the teacher was not having a revelation, but may have had an adverse reaction to medication.

Not that long ago, any teacher making such proclamations would have been made into a saint and an object of veneration.  Instead, now, she was assumed to be ill.  Another religious figure, Eddie Long (left), the pastor of a Georgia-based church, was recently wrapped in a Torah and declared king.  He was laughed at by the media and was forced to offer a stumbling explanation.

That didn’t happen to our so-called saints.

Think of St. Drogo, for example.  Saddened that his mother died in childbirth, he launched a career of self-flagellation in the 1100s.  On one of his many pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the Frenchman came down with a disease that deformed him.  As a result, he was hidden away and yet revered.  Today, he’s the patron saint of coffee houses.

St. Anthony, an Egyptian Coptic monk, lived in a tomb for many years, he said, to overcome “boredom, laziness and the phantoms of women.”  He drew large crowds of admirers until his death around 356.

St. Hildegard
St. Hildegard, who died in 1179, wrote that “… it came to pass...when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain.”  Too much medicine for her, too?

Let’s not forget St. Joseph, the one who lived in the 1600s.  He was seen flying.  He also supposedly able to command animals, a particularly valuable skill in case something like a hungry eagle saw him airborne.

Back in the 5th century, St. Simeone Stylites lived for decades on top of a pillar near Aleppo, Syria. People crowded around his pillars, seeking advice and blessings from the would-be hermit.

Such absurdities are not limited to Catholics.  Zany activity went on in many other beliefs as well. 

In the light of the odd behavior of religious zealots, what happened in Texas would seem perfectly normal.

In some ways, it is.  People often feel the need to express their religious feelings in bizarre ways for several reasons:

They want to show they are true believers.  The skepticism exists within their own brains.  They are trying to convince themselves.  The pain they often endure helps ease the psychological emptiness.  They are simply not happy with themselves.  As one drug addict noted, “No matter what I did, what I said, where I went, I was never comfortable with the shell I carried called myself.”  For some, religion becomes the drug of choice.

In addition, they have swallowed the religious teachings of heaven and hell with amazing relish and are desperate to ensure their own passageway to God’s home.  Philosophies of religion can become so engrained that they dictate behavior, much the same way parasites can force animals to perform bizarrely.

Mass suicide at Jonestown
Also, they want to demonstrate they belong to the group.  Mob psychology helps explain group suicides, like what happened in Guyana with Jim Jones in 1978 or Heaven’s Gate in 1997.  In both cases, many people willingly committed suicide.  Acting independently, many probably would not have, but were carried along by the group to “prove” their commitment.

Ego gets involved, too.  People who are immersed in their faith feel obligated to demonstrate the depth of their commitment.  After all, they are being compared to other religious figures from the past and present.  If one "saint" prayed eight hours a day, the next must at least match that, and so on.

Then, too, some people have brain damage or cause their own problems by severely limiting their diets.  Saints are especially famed for their sparse menus.  However, lack of food leads to hallucinations.  Native Americans took advantage of that fact to send their young male adults off into the wilderness.  They would get very hungry, causing dreams that, in turn, resulted in assuming new, adult name.

Psychiatrists undoubtedly can come up with other answers.  However, the differences between yesterday and today are starkly obvious: what used to be considered religious revelation is today thought of as a mental aberration.

That’s how far modern skepticism has overtaken aging religion.

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.