Monday, December 31, 2007

Great moments in religion, 2007

As another holiday season winds to a close, we're reminded again why so many people look a bit askance at religion, and why conflating "religion" with "morality" is illogical. There are plenty of positives to religion -- as I've noted before. But as with any human institution, it's prone to abuse and misuse.

From the 2007 holiday season alone, we have the following cautionary tales:

In India, home to many religious militants, Hindu attacks on Christians led to several days of riots and clashes. Though a small minority and initially the victims, some Christians went beyond defending themselves, engaging in retaliatory arson attacks against Hindu homes. The dispute began when a Christmas Eve show was perceived by hard-line Hindus as an attempt to encourage conversions -- a touchy subject in India: The state where the violence occurred, Orissa, even has a law requiring police permission before someone can change their religion.

What better way to honor the birthplace of Jesus than to fight over it? Sounds silly, but that's a not-uncommon occurrence at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over a grotto where many believe Jesus was born. The church is jointly managed by three different Christian sects: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic. It would seem to be a triumph of interfaith cooperation -- were it not for the pitched battles between priests over such weighty matters as who gets to clean what part of the building. And the peacemakers? Palestinian policemen, who broke up the fight.

Down the road, in Nablus, masked Jewish settlers from an illegal West Bank settlement attacked four Palestinian farmers, spraying them with pepper gas and beating them with sticks. Hardline Jewish settlers believe they are divinely ordained to settle Palestinian land, which is often simply appropriated without compensation to the landowner.

It's been a busy week for Islamist extremists. Though putatively fighting a holy war against Christian and Jewish oppressors, their targets of late have been mostly Muslim: Sunni tribesmen opposed to Al-Qaeda, Benazir Bhutto and, of course, those heretical Shiites -- some of whom have violence issues of their own.

Here we have not one, but two examples of believers -- in this case, Christians -- putting faith ahead of brains.

The first is the urban legend that the song "12 Days of Christmas" is really a coded recitation of Catholic beliefs, apparently based on little more than the fact that the song is really old, and that both it and Catholicism manage to contain some elements numbered up to twelve. Never mind that the symbolism ascribed to the song involves elements embraced both by Catholics and their Anglican persecutors, which kind of renders the whole exercise pointless.

The second is a small movement that sees Biblical significance in Interstate Highway 35, which runs through Minnesota.

Some believe I-35 might be shorthand that links the interstate to Isaiah 35:8 of the Bible: "And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not err therein."

I-35 = Isaiah 35... get it? Never mind that there doesn't seem to be any explanation for the eight. There's also the weird logic outlined by one supporter, who points to tragic events -- the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the 1963 assassination of JFK and killings and kidnappings in Laredo -- in arguing that I-35 is a "highway of holiness." Huh? If that's holiness, I don't want any part of it.

These folks don't represent the mainstream of their faith, of course. None of the examples here do. But they're a remarkably time-compressed compendium of all the ways that faith -- particularly partisan, unquestioning faith -- can lead to harmful results. Believe whatever works for you: but always be willing to tolerate the existence of, and interchange with, other beliefs. And always, always, always be willing to entertain the idea that more than one belief could be right -- or that you are the one who is wrong.

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