News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Review of Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim. In the forward written by R. Joseph Hoffman of Westminster College, Oxford, Ibn Warraq is praised for having great courage in the writing of this book, given that its author is a former Muslim devoted to exploding Islam. Islam prescribes the death penalty for apostates and the death-sentence fatwa, as Salman Rushdie discovered in 1989, is still very much in vogue.
Interesting was the compassion felt in the West among many intellectuals for Rushdie's situation. According to the author, this was a result of the multicultural card being brought, once again, so very eminently into play to achieve social justice. The calculus of the compassionate, as far as I can determine, goes as such: All cultures being of equal value, one should feel sympathy for those less equal and refrain from embarrassing, humiliating, criticising, or even critiquing them. Given that all cultures are equal, and critiques by design evaluate and sort things according to rank, critiques, let alone wit or mockery, are simply unacceptable. Thus Rushdie was at fault, brought the fatwa on himself, and should serve as an example of what happens, or at least what should happen, to those guilty of heresy and apostasy from multiculturalism. Freedom of speech is relative and you can't prove it exists anyway; and besides, everyone knows that America is the world's most satanic oppressor and the export of culturally imperialistic hamburgers is more insidious, villainous, and ultimately lethal to cultures than bullets. Muslim's have the same right to myths as non-Muslims and if Khomeini pursued his God-given right to believe in myths and mythologies and then decided to have Rushdie assassinated, then it was a squabble between Muslims that ought to be left behind the door, and it would be culturally insensitive, nay 19th century sahib arrogant, to pass judgement.
But such rhetoric-based lunacy, which first dismayed me while taking grad courses from two well-qualified morons at my bumpkin alma mater, seems almost old hat now. After years of denial, I have finally busted through and admitted the unpleasant truth that left-wing thought is pathological: it's essentially a power-play by the lazy and/or insincere which, by means of various short-cuts (ex: pursuing the moral high-horse -- principally an exercise in being first to express compassion for the inept and incompetent --, flashing the race card (ibid), trumping thought with impressive shot-gun blasts of disorganized information, pretending all issues are a matter of he said/she said and thus devolving the discourse into banter and rhetorical salvos) and a lush camouflage of excuses (ex: oppression at the hands of elites, neoconservatives, fundamentalists, dirty politicians, racist cops, greedy business owners, the grasping rich in general: in brief, a conspiracy theory for every social issue). Rather than hitting the library, and risking confusion and boredom, lefties take to a hoggish and undescriminating swallowing of the infotainment of the newspapers and TV and the pronouncements of the more marketable hacks of academe (Chomsky, Said, Zinn) as their several Oracles. They pursue authorities, experts, and activists with all the hope and assiduity of the spiritualist chasing after a tent evangelist who promises short-cuts to cracking open the divine mysteries. In brief, the left-liberal devoted to cultivating his feelings is the educated and more solvent half of an equation, the other side of which finds a Sunday-school attendee cultivating communion with whichever member of the Trinity has a spare minute.
On a more positive note, what really captured my interest was the revelation that the Koran, like the Christian New Testament, and the Jewish Old Testament, is almost entirely unreliable as a historical document. As a healthily irreverant youth, one starts out with the expectation that religious canons likely involve a fair degree of wish-fulfillment and spin and are given to stretching the facts; however, on closer examination they tend, surprisingly, to often be as dubious as Scientology's dogma that the known universe is run by space aliens who moved in more than 50 million years ago and presently inhabit our bodies. We just don't know it. Yet. The bare-faced messiah, L. Ron Hubbard, discovered we're in fact just pods. Heaven's Gate went on to discover that space aliens reside on a UFO hiding behind a comet that spins giddily around our sun.

But back to the respectable lunacies. Where to begin? The Jewish Old Testament offers such fare as Abraham telling the story of his life, his death, and then telling us in his own words what happened after he died. The story of Noah and the Ark is actually a rip-off of an Assyrian flood story, the Tale of Gilgamesh.

The Christian New Testament consists of four Gospels, written by four different authors, none of whom knew Jesus, nor met him, and only one of the authors knew anybody who had ever known Jesus. The first of the Gospels was written around 30 years after Jesus died. The earliest Gospel starts out with Jesus being born to a woman whose name is not given. She's just a prop, better left anonymous so as not to distract from the main show. Several decades later, when the last Gospel was written, and whatever facts remained were fading, the woman suddenly sprouted a name, Mary, and it was discovered that while she was asleep God had taken glorious liberties with her (a legally actionable offense in our profane age) in what has come to be known as the Immaculate Conception. Odd that Paul, the only character quoted in the Bible who actually knew Jesus, never mentioned this. Maybe somebody else did though. There are in fact something like 20 Gospels, telling 20 different versions of the revealed truth, but a church committee meeting in the 3rd century AD devoted two weeks to haggling and settling on the four we now find in the Bible.

This filling out the details, the fluffing up of stories to answer the questions of querying customers is the pattern with religions and one repeated with the Koran as well. While Jesus and his pals were still above ground, it wasn't safe to take liberties with the truth ('oppression' anyone?).

Well, in the case of the Koran, the Prophet had been dead for 120 years before the first history of his life got underway. So much for eyewitness testimony. But far more provocative are such revelations as: early Muslim's didn't take Mecca as their holy city, early histories of the region don't mention Muhammad, coins for 200 years after the death of the Prophet don't mention him either (compare this to US coins bearing the words "In God we trust"), and that the first dynasty to rule Arabia after the prophet's death was antithetical to religion. In other words, there's a suspicion amongst some learned infidels that Mohammed may never have existed at all. Those events which did take place in the 6th century, did not occur in Mecca and Medina and if there in fact was a living breathing Prophet, he was neither famous nor influential in his time.

Like the four Gospels of the New Testament, which don't agree on the lineage of Jesus, his mother, the details of the resurrection, or much of anything else, the Koran is full of loose ends. For example, the Koran is supposed to be the revealed word of God delivered in pure Arabic. However, its got a smattering of Hebrew, Syriac, and words borrowed from at least another five languages. Numerous passages of the Koran are not clearly not issued from the perspective of God, but from the perspective of a worshiper. Further, the Koran borrows but often confuses stories from the Old Testament, getting events in the wrong order, leaving others out entirely and thus rendering stories confusing and incomplete: one has to drag out the original source, the Hebrew Old Testament edition, for cross-referencing in order to understand what the Old Boy was trying to say. Plus its various passages appear to have been written by numerous different authors whose grammar and spelling ranges from perfect to the appalling.

But of greatest interest to me is not the pulling apart of the authenticity of the holy books of yore, which, after all, in a secular age is child's play and easy to the point of seeming almost unsportsmanlike given the simple barbarousness and profound ignorance of the yokels who authored them. More challenging, and thus more exciting, is attempting to penetrate the phenomenon whereby religions gain a grasp upon the imagination of the credulous. Most believers don't read their Bibles; they acquire most of their information secondhand. As a result, most Christians are unaware that Jesus liked to drink, that he did not like to be followed around by adherents and did not hesitate to use foul language to disperse them when annoyed. Most Christians are only vaguely aware that Pontius Pilate gave the assembled crowd at the final sentencing of Jesus the opportunity to set him free. Pilate in a public act of magnanimity gave the crowd the choice of setting free one of four prisoners. Rather than free Jesus, they freed a petty thief. My point is that, Jesus is considered by most to be patient, compassionate, to feel our pain. The reality is that he was a human being with a temper who didn't like people crowding his space and who wasn't terribly popular. In the same vein, most Christians are unaware of the derivation of the name Jesus Christ. The spelling of Jesus is suspiciously close to the spelling of the Egyptian god Isis, the monotheistic sun god. The name Christ, as I recall, simply means the chosen one. Jesus Christ and Isis Christ are considered by some heretics to be one and the same. And there's the Indian school that says Jesus was taken down from the crucifix by shelter of night and thus made his triumphant second coming as a wounded mortal. He cleared out of town at the earliest opportunity and finally ended up in polytheistic India where it was safe to be a nut and loose cannon. India of that period was unacquainted with the civilized monotheistic practice of killing any booster exhorting a lunacy that differed from one's own. Safe in a land of poly-nonsense, Jesus died an old duffer and was buried in a small town grave that bears his name down to the present day.

But I've long wondered whether the pathologies of religion are a product of defective Faith, or a product of the naturally defective human psychology. I think it helps to look at a secular edition of the faith-based lunatic, the glorious patriot: Napoleon is perhaps the best known example, but I know nothing about him. So, I'll stick with Sun Yat-sen, China's uber-patriot, the father of the country who assiduously worked to get into motion eleven different revolutions with the final one successfully overthrowing the Ching Dynasty. Most shouting patriots, like most people in general, don't bother with a library card. After all, knowledge is the stuff of nerds, cranks, bores, and other unpopular types. Patriots want truth, heroic nation-sized Truths. Thus they don't know, aren't interested in knowing, and prefer not to know (for the inconvenience it creates) that Sun Yat-sen botched the first ten of those revolutions. The 11th revolution, which succeeded in overthrowing the Ching Dynasty, had nothing to do with him. He was not even in China; he was in Denver, Colorado. He learned about the Revolution by reading about it in the newspaper, like most of the rest of the world. Sun Yat-sen became active in the new era, the democratic Republican China, by assassinating competitors, founding the KMT as a fascist party and demanding a pledge of allegiance to him, not to the party. He tried to finance the southern government of China by secretly borrowing funds from Japanese, not Chinese, investors and was regarded as a traitor throughout the land. When members of the KMT began to abandon him to the 1920s, he threatened to go over to the Commies. His Three Principles of the People are borrowed from various sources and are not the product of a pioneer and innovator, but of a collector and curator. Curiously, since then, he has been evolved into a plaster saint, with mustachio and a smirk. The assassinator (sic), bumbler, conservative thinking, occasional traitor is a bold and dashing hero to those who know the least about him.
Well, much the same sort of refurbishing went into the sainthood of Muhammad.

Jesus made a clean break from the Old Testament Jehovah, dispensing with the revenge, jealousy, insecurity, folly, lunacy, cutting his nose to spite his face, justifiable rape, premeditated murder, ethnic cleansing, and so forth. Jesus took after Confucius, while adding a few monkeyshines (walking on water, turning bread into fishes, etc.) to keep the show appealing to Western attention spans. Muhammad, on the other hand, copied the best of whatever had come before (i.e. the Jewish Old Testament) and then added timely expedients to facilitate the prevailing desert work ethic (freebooting, looting, ethnic cleansing, women as property, stealing other men's wives, enslaving children, etc.). In my brief survey of Islam to date, my favorite Koranic quote is "a revelation" found in sura 8.68: "It has not been for any prophet to take captives until he has slaughtered in the land."
But surely, when one thinks of the Koran, one recalls endless references to Allah the Merciful, the Compassionate. And one would think that by virtue of acquaintance with the Merciful One, the Prophet himself must surely also have been merciful. However, according to the Good Book itself, he's a far more bloodthirsty edition of Sun Yat-sen. In other words, as is the rule of thumb with despots, the fascist who starts out claiming he wants to help you (Hitler, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot) is far worse than the fascist shamelessly out for self-aggrandizement and gain (Franco, Chiang Kai-shek, Pinochet, Sukarno). The vast infamy of the more successful left-wing gangster patriots speaks volumes.
The Prophet masterminded a whole host of assassinations, sponsored gangs of thugs who went on raiding expeditions. Interestingly, like Sun Yat-sen, the raids only seemed to work when the Prophet was not around. He and his homies made such a hash of raiding that they only became successful at it when they began attacking unarmed caravans during the holy months. Then Dude came up with a dispensation for unsportsmanlike raiding direct from the maw of Allah. A pragmatic Prophet, he always took a 20% cut of the swag, continuing to do so when he engaged in three different ethnic cleansing campaigns to eliminate Jewish tribes in Mecca (assuming he ever was in Mecca). And these ethnic cleansing campaigns, to be specific, involved shaking down entire Jewish populations for all of their money and property, killing them in numbers, killing all of the male population in one incident and enslaving the women and children, and taking some of the wives into his own harem. The picture is by no means a pretty one.
Then again, the Jewish Old Testament, consists of a great number of butcheries, rapes, swindles, and like as well. And this in fact is often used to excuse the Prophet's behavior. Except that another singular Prophet in a backwater village, Jesus, exhorted pacifism while also living in a violent locale. Or was it? After all, the Levant was colonized by a predatory regime, Rome, which means it was oppressed with Pax Romana, social welfare schemes, public baths, free education, canals, irrigation, highways, a working economy, and something approaching modern law and order. Bloody Romans!

Back to the big picture: truth converted into myth by eager believers who want access to a God who's familiar and helpful and who gives one whatever, be it winning lottery tickets to a successful flirtation. Perhaps many people are fascinated and crave God for the same reason all of us are closet fascists: it's hard to break the apron strings and so much easier to turn over responsibility to an authority figure. Growing up as a center of attention, being mothered by one's mother and fathered by one's father, being thrust out into the world is a shock. It produces insanity all across the mammal line (grizzly bears, humans, etc.). It's only natural that some adults, when reminiscing on the comforts of childhood, fix fondly on the comforting mainstays of childhood, from the paternal parent to the invisible friend. Inspired, they revive and outfit it with characteristics more befitting the expectations and fashions of the adult world: ergo prayer, communing with Father Jesus, invoking the protection of one's guardian angel, etc.

Perhaps I've never been attracted to God because my parents were stringent and demanding. I had to be a working facsimile of an adult right from the get-go. With a workaholic father and a stepmother with kids of her own, I was seldom the center of positive attention (more often it was a case of the reverse...haha). For better or for worse, I never presumed the world was full of fairness, justice, consideration, sympathy, or any of the other virtues real or imagined. Thus I was never disappointed that the world was not replete with virtue and the virtuous. Lacking a difficult transition to adulthood, I had no need of a surrogate pal or parent.

Either way the public has eagerly accepted mythologies and willingly dodged the truth in favor of converting the complex confounding personas that made Jesus, Sun Yat-sen, and Mohammed tick into a trio of colorful comforting wax figures with encouraging expressions. It's all so reassuring. When the naturally inquisitive person -- a pest at the best of times -- pushes the envelope and asks nosy questions, a few people may actually get the message. They begin to discover that they've been misled. After all, even the newspapers don't tell the truth because reporters and editors, especially, tend to be very polite to paying customers. You can imagine how most religious folks in most countries would react to newspaper articles critical of their cherished religion. Unfortunately, most simple folk (like myself), when emancipated from the urban legends and conspiracy theories that constitute the bulk of knowledge cherished by the university-graduated and newspaper-educated sophisto, leap directly for an appealing new set of primeval conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories aren't due to poor logic or bad information, but due to faulty axioms and preconceptions. Until one realizes that the world runs on systems (math, physics, markets, climate, rates of human reproduction, ratios of resource to food conversion, rates of desertification, etc, etc. ) and gets rid of the prevailing, and utterly childish, notion that each one of us is still the center of attention and that all negative events in our lives are the result of deliberately hostile acts, then we remain wed to conspiracy theories and crave them, and only them, as explanations for world events (cabals of neoconservatives, Jews, Israel, multinationals, fundamentalists, gun owners, angry white men, minorities, and other assorted baddies).
And who serves this market for lunacy, modern mythology and renovated urban legends? Once even a minimal amount of reading is performed, a niche market appears for those hungry for shortcuts to the drudgery of becoming informed. And who are the swamis who have commandeered this self-help market for the pathological? For the timid apostate, the New Age religions, Wicca, and Scientology. For those boldly flirting with atheism, Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and the other Messiahs of the conspiracy left.
In other words, the dogma changes, but the dogmatic outlook remains. Generation after generation of disillusioned wretches make the hard and lonely trip out of the mists of the traditional respected charismatic faiths, looking for answers, feeling betrayed, alienated, and ripped off. They see science. They know better. For what can science tell us about the meaning of life when it lacks humanity, heart, values? And so they turn their back on systems and empiricism and hitch their tickets to a new Messiah, a new liturgy, a new set of dizzying global combats between the forces of good and evil. When the Creation Scientists complain that Evolution is the new secular religion, you've got to admit the dumb bastards are really not all that far off base.

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