On the cluttered deity table in my office stands a statue of Guan Yin, given to me by my Qingdao University students just before final exam time in the spring of 1994. No doubt they hoped that since Guan Yin is the Goddess of Mercy, she might help soften the usual harshness of my grading standards at that crucial time. In fact I appreciated the gift because Guan Yin is my favorite deity: a benevolent and forgiving goddess who actually used to be a god in Buddhist India before she underwent some kind of celestial sex change operation on her way to China.
I wonder if I were to burn a little incense to Madame Guan Yin she might find a way to relax and enlighten Bill Maher, who spends entirely too much time beating up on religion. According to him, religion is not only responsible for most wars, it also causes the enslavement of women and does lots of other awful things.
But religion doesn’t cause these things. It would be more accurate to say that religion may be brought in like a flunky/character witness to justify one group’s treatment of another, but it is typically brought in after the fact of the mistreatment.
White southerners were already committed to slavery – for economic reasons -- before they began rooting through the Old Testament to find some way to declare that God said it was OK for them to dehumanize and enslave African families. The men of the Arabian Peninsula were subjugating women long before the angel Gabriel gave birth to Islam by dictating it to Mohammed.
Religion didn't cause slavery and the subjugation of women; it just helped the enslavers and male chauvinists to justify their self-serving behavior. Against these examples there are plenty of cases in which religion modified nastiness rather than enabling it.
Religious beliefs grow out of the cultures in which they appear and tend to mirror those cultures. The Judeo-Christian-Muslim family of religions grew out of societies in which patriarchal clans and families were the norm, and loyalty to the clan was virtue number one. Because of this male-dominated cultural setting, all three of these religions imagined God to be a wise and powerful father figure to whom one must be absolutely loyal. Even Satan is a male figure in these religions.
Satan is actually more variable and interesting than God, given his youthful rebelliousness. Let’s face it: Satan is cool. He flouts authority, takes chances, and knows how to have a good time. But, like God, he’s unmistakably a “he.”
He’s only mentioned a few times throughout the Bible, as, for example, when he instigates Job’s troubles. In Dante’s Inferno, he’s depicted as a huge, three-headed animal who sits in a freezing pit. Yes, freezing.
There seems to have been a long-standing division between Middle Eastern and European notions of Hell, with the Europeans seeing it as a place of bitter cold while the Middle Easterners were sure that it was hot and fiery. Given current cartoon depictions, I’d say the Middle Eastern vision finally won out. On my old Gary Larson screen saver, for example, Hell looked like a fiery cave and the devils in charge were horned and tailed. They were also definitely male.
All these shared notions of Gabriel, God and Satan point to the common origins of Christianity and Islam. These two religions also share a belief in Jesus. For Muslims, however, Jesus is not the Son of God, but rather a prophet of God. Moses, Abraham and other Old Testament figures are also counted among the Muslim prophets. Devout Muslims are inclined to say “Peace be upon him,” every time they utter the name of a prophet. I recall an Arab American Imam who lectured on our campus about Islam and Christianity and who repeated the phrase “Peace be upon him,” every time he mentioned Jesus.
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Mr. Maher is wasting his time by focusing his hostility on religion. Not only are Christianity and Islam similar to each other, religious people and non-religious people are similar to each other in that we’re all trying to figure the world out in light of what we believe. The problem is not in religion per se, but in fanaticism.
Fanaticism starts with the idea that one’s own beliefs are the right ones and the world needs to benefit from them whether the world realizes it or not. Little good can come of this mentality, but it is not always rooted in religion. The anti-religious fervor of Stalinist Russia easily matches the brutality of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
So, Bill, my advice: Take a chill pill on religion. I’m not saying you need to go so far as to burn incense to Guan Yin (though she did come through for my Qingdao students). I’m just saying our real enemy is not religion, it’s fanaticism.
Guan Yin with Dragon