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I have this memory, from a few years ago, of sitting around in a friend’s apartment and listening to random music and eating great food. (Said friend was Danish, you see, and dang but do Scandinavians know how to cook.) At some point the soundtrack for Jesus Christ Superstar came on. Specifically, ‘Everything’s Alright’, the scene where Mary Magdalene goes to bathe Jesus’ feet and was his hair with her expensive oils. The song is quite moving, I suppose, but I suddenly realised I loathed it.
In the song, Judas Iscariot rises and condemns Magdalene and Jesus for using the ‘fine ointment / brand new and expensive’ instead. Instead he advocates selling the stuff and using the ‘three hundred… or more’ pieces of silver they could have acquired to assistant the poor and starving in Roman-occupied Judea. Jesus’ condescending response is that there will always be poor folk, ‘pathetically struggling’ and that it’s better to appreciate the ‘fine things’ that one already has. Meanwhile in the background, Magdalene and the chorus (the wives of the apostles) chant:
Everything’s alright, yes, everything’s alright, yes.
Close your eyes, close your eyes, and relax
What a hideous piece of music. Of course Jesus advocates that one should appreciate what one has. He is the one getting his feet massaged with oils! He is the leader of the motley crew, with all the power and authority. And, of course, he is the all-powerful Son of God, one third of the Trinity, with the power to overturn all the earth and make it into a paradise. His sneering contempt for the helpless poverty of the people he was sent to save sends paroxysms of anger and hatred down my spine.
Helpless only because he refuses to help them! There will always be poor of the world because the Almighty refuses to do anything to stop it. When one of his closest companions offers to help relieve some of the poor of their cruel lot, he refuses- why help anyone at all, when there are others? Why indeed, especially when one can spent such exorbitant wealth on oneself. Gah.
This is without even addressing the myopic bleating of the chorus lines. Close your eyes and relax! Pay no heed to those who are desperately trying to wake you up from your heartless selfishness. Everything’s all right. Just relax.
It perfectly encapsulates my issues with religious thinking.
Of course, Superstar isn’t exactly an accurate depiction of the New Testament. Yet even a straightforward reading of the texts of Jesus reveals him to be anything other than a powerful figure for social change. Rather than advocating the freedom of his people from Roman rule, he said to render unto Caesar what was his. Rather than compelling his followers to improve their lives and those of their neighbours in the here and now, he declared that he was a sword to set brother against brother.
What a lovely chap. I much prefer Judas.
I am still struggling with some other work, so you may consider this post filler. Behold! A holy saint who I would be inclined to worship:
Magistra et Mater is one of those blogs which intimidate me. The posts are long, erudite, and nuanced, which I always compare to the half-thoughts and earnest but incoherent flailing which makes up a large part of my own writing. It is good to be cowed, I think, to be inspired to be better: some of my favourite teachers at university also frighten me, and I have learned much from them.
A few weeks ago, she wrote a post on sociology of religion and the religious ‘marketplace’. Among other perspectives criticised, she noted some issues with treating religion as a choice, not an inheritance:
I realised I was committing the religious fallacy of thinking like a Protestant (and so were the atheists who had planned the campaign). It’s a particularly Protestant understanding of religion to see it as involving assent to particular doctrines, an assent that can only properly be given by reasoning adults. If you instead imagine religion as more about a cultural/social inheritance than specific dogmas, then it’s no more unreasonable to bring up a child to be a Jew than it is to bring them up to be Welsh-speaking or a classical music lover, or someone who supports Luton Town football club.
This is a sentiment I have been struggling to form for some time now. Every atheist writer I have encountered seems to think that this is how religions work, and so do a number of my friends- and, until recently, I did as well. It seems so correct to think in this way, and the omnipresence of evangelicals and street-corner preachers gives credence to this perspective. It simply does not hold water.
Relatively few religions work in such a manner, either presently or historically. Certainly Buddhism does, and modern Christianity, and Islam- but Judaism is famous for being a ‘religion’ which does not seek converts. Hinduisms are local religions, practiced generationally. It is similar to traditional religions across the world, from Alaska to Australia to Madagascar. Religion simply is not solely a matter for personal belief. It incorporates family traditions, and local beliefs, and history. It has always done so.
Even Christianity was highly localised during development. Conversion during the medieval period was not only directed at individuals, pressured into changing beliefs for the sake of their souls, but at kings and emperors and lords. Once your king has been converted, religious change ripples down through society, altering local beliefs to the new religious faith. The plethora of local saints and rituals still embedded in European Christianity are the evidence for this. The religion of even converts was still local, still familial. A saint highly praised in one corner of Spain would not necessarily be looked at twice in northern Germany.
This point becomes clearer when looking at Judaism. Every time I speak about religion, little voices behind my ear whisper that my perspective is heavily on proselytising religions, modern Protestantism, Islam; the religions where it really is mostly about personal choice. Yet Judaism is problematic. It is both a religion and a culture, an ethnic group and a belief system. Some people get shirty at Jews pointing out their history of persecution by saying “it’s just a religion”- but it isn’t. Others get annoyed that Jews have synagogues and tax-free institutions because ‘Jewishness’ is not a religion, but an ethnic grouping. It is both, and it is neither. Not being Jewish myself, I am unqualified to push this further than that.
It is clear that the atheist movement must do something to address this culturally-Protestant blinder that seems to have dropped over our eyes when it comes to religion. True, a ‘Muslim child’ or ‘Catholic child’ has not made a conscious choice to follow the delusional beliefs of his parents. Yet at the same time, that child should rightly be allowed to inherit the culture of said parents. I do not mean genital mutilation or enforced homophobia, but there are benign aspects to religio-culture as well as malicious. We should not -we have not the right- to force people to give away cherished pieces of the their identity, just because we do not like some of the connotations. It is profoundly anti-liberal. Religion is more than just belief in the supernatural, and an identity need not be stripped away if that part is removed.
I have friends who are proudly Catholic even as they are non-religious and speak out against the Church’s cruelty. ‘Secular Jews’, those who believe in God as much as I do and yet embrace their millenia-old culture and history, are so common that sometimes people forget that Judaism is also a religion.
I am firmly committed to the idea that God/s and the supernatural beliefs tied to such things are worse than useless, and I am determined to speak out against them. In order to be better at this, atheists must know what it is we are struggling against. Religion is incredibly complicated, and often poorly defined. It is tied to culture and tradition in ways subtle and complicated, with the residue remaining long after the faith has been scoured away- I am culturally Christian, for all that I do not believe in Christ. It should be defined better, understood better, and our campaigns not be waged in a way that is effective against only some kinds of faith-structure.
The slogan of the Billboard Campaign, “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself”, works. It says that we should not consider the child of Anglican parents to necessarily be Anglican. Except that she will be Anglican- whether or not he believes in God when he grows up, he’s still the son of Anglicans. Just as she is the daughter of Jews, or the son of a Catholic. Catholicism is not all about faith, and Judaism is not all about belief.
The book is supposed to say “Qu’ran” but I am not very good at drawing with a mouse. I would apologise for that, but I really doubt we expected any better. I don’t think my parents even pinned my art to the fridge as a child. I prefer to think that they concealed it, deep in a place where no man could ever discover such awful works ever again. Maybe even in a box marked DO NOT OPEN in red letters.
Today is Everyone Draw Muhammad Day, and so I have provided my drawing. It is neither very good (as promised), nor as insulting as I originally intended. Those who know me personally may be shocked that I was nice. As I mentioned a few days ago, I am participating in thise event not to show contempt for Muslims, but to point out the idiocy of getting offended when people choose to ignore the tenets of a religion in which they do not believe. Hindus do not get offended that others are eating hamburgers; neo-pagans do not get offended that I do not offer sacrifice to Artemis.
I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that depiction of the prophet is nothing new. There is a great deal of medieval art depicting Muhammad, much of it Islamic. The Wikipedia page has a decent gallery featuring images from the 14th century, although there are those who claim that being an encyclopedia is offensive. Draw Muhammad Day, or the Danish cartoon controversy- these are nothing new. To get irate over these things is foolish.
Pakistani citizens have already become angry, even rioting in the streets, over the campaign.
I enjoy blasphemy. Swearing is one of those core human experiences, I think, and swallowing ‘goddamn’ while I’m speaking with academic staff is difficult for me. I have a t-shirt that says “God is dead (I ate him)” which I love to wear on Sundays. Also, I’m an atheist and I don’t know if you’ve heard but a number of religions seem to think that denial of the divine is blasphemous all by itself.
This enjoyment is not why I support Draw Muhammad Day this Thursday. Rather it is a response to the foolishness that seems to grow in the minds of even moderate Muslims, that some of them speak out against the most mild criticisms of their religion. I have Muslim co-workers at my job, whom I gently mocked during Ramadan last year- and not only did they never get offended, they laughed at my poor taste in jokes. (I particularly enjoyed drinking water whenever I was thirsty. I am a bad, bad man.)
Eboo Patel over at the Huffington Post seems to think that any kind of satire directed at Islam is the same as mass murder:
Will the free speech cloak protect you from social outrage if you went to a party dressed in blackface? If you chalked a swastika on the sidewalk leading to the campus Hillel? If you stood on the college quad and chanted “fag” at every male with blow dried hair who walks by? If you applauded as champions of free speech the handful of Palestinian kids horrifically dancing in the streets after 9/11?
The key issue here isn’t free speech — it’s actions that intentionally and effectively marginalize a community.
I mean, wow. This is the mother of all false conflations- drawing a stick figure of Muhammad is not the same thing as drawing a symbol representative of murdering all Jews. Other people have tackled this idiotic essay better than I could, so you should go read or watch them. This chap is wrong, and massively distorting the facts of the situation to serve whatever purposes he has in mind. I cannot abide that.
I won’t deny that there are racists and Islamophobes who will use the day to rave and flail about how “them scary brown peoples is comin’ to take our jobs an’ blow shit up.” There are going to be racists and dangerous fools who do not know what they are speaking about. I absolutely repudiate that kind of thing. There are also anti-Catholic protestant bigots who rail about the Pope being the Anti-Christ and I will not stand alongside them either- but does that invalidate criticism of the papacy? No.
So I support Draw Muhammad Day. I support the day because it is about free speech, and satire. It is about showing the moderates that it is okay to gently poke fun at a religion, to loudly criticise. The world is a free market of ideas, and if I offend you by my drawing of Muhammad, you offend me by claiming that I am doomed to damnation for not believing in his God. A drawing of Muhammad shows the angry, the psychotic, and the vicious that I am not afraid. Or their God, Hell, or lack of respect for human life.
Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, used a much better analogy:
You never hear about Hindus walking into McDonald’s and telling the manager they’re not allowed to use beef products anymore.
If they did, we would laugh it off. We’d say that’s absurd because non-Hindus don’t have to follow their rules.
But what if the Hindu radicals committed a violent act against the manager? We’d be furious.
What if moderate Hindus said it was offensive for someone else to eat a Big Mac? We’d say that’s crazy.
In response to all that, I think it would be perfectly appropriate to stage a peaceful sit-in where all participants ate Big Macs.
It wouldn’t be anti-Hinduism nor would anyone be purposely trying to piss off Hindus by doing that. It would just be a show of solidarity by those who believe that only Hindus need to abide by their religious beliefs, not anyone else.
That’s what we’re doing by drawing these Muhammad images.
This Thursday, May 20th, I will draw a picture of Muhammad. It will probably not be very good.