Recovering from Theophobia: My Personal, Secular Jihad

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The image above is a 19th-Century painting by Eugène Delacroix, depicting the story of Jacob, wrestling with a being often described as an angel, as described in the Book of Genesis. An interesting part of the story is that there were no witnesses to this struggle in the darkness (“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak,” Gen. 32:24, NIV), which tells me that the conflict could have occurred entirely inside Jacob’s mind. It does not matter if there was, or was not, an actual person, named Jacob, who had such an experience. No supernatural beliefs are necessary to find this story interesting, and there is no good reason to avoid thinking about it.

Thought is, of course, a mental activity which can bring clarity to confusing things in life, just as a sunrise can enable one to see things which have previously been hidden by night. There are times when thinking requires solitude, and the process of figuring out difficult problems usually doesn’t succeed without some sort of internal struggle. If you have ever wrestled with a single, difficult mathematical problem for several days running, as I have, then you understand this already — but the need for clear, rational thinking is certainly not limited to the field of mathematics. Rational thought is important in all parts of life.

Whether we like it or not, life contains a series of both external and internal struggles. Many people dislike conflict, and go to great lengths to avoid it. I am not one of those people, but this is not by choice. It is, rather, a result of the fact that I was born into an intense struggle-in-progress:  the efforts of my now-deceased father, a religious fanatic, to control the lives of everyone around him, and use them for his own selfish purposes — and the efforts of some of these other people, myself included, to escape his efforts to control every facet of our lives. From an early age, out of necessity, I had to develop complex techniques of mental and verbal combat, both defensive and offensive, simply to survive childhood with some semblance of sanity intact — although the resulting PTSD, from growing up in the war zone I called “home,” is something with which I will always have to cope. My earliest memory, after all, is surviving shaken baby syndrome at age 2½, and that sort of experience simply cannot be escaped without consequences.

My mental-combat techniques still exist, available for use at any time of my choosing, and can have devastating impact on others — I seldom lose an argument — but using these verbal and mental weapons at full power is, I now realize, quite dangerous, more so to myself than to anyone else. Now, decades later, I still have to be careful not to be overly eager to jump headlong, as if by instinct, into any conflict which presents itself, especially if I see those I care about being bullied, or otherwise abused. I have neither the time, nor the mental energy, to fight every single injustice I see, but it took many years for me to understand the wisdom of the well-known saying that it is important to choose one’s battles carefully.

The word “jihad,” which I deliberately used in the title of this post, is complex, and has multiple definitions. It is also an emotionally-charged word, and out-of-control emotions are, perhaps, the greatest enemy of rational thought. So, first, please understand this: when I use this word, I am not referring to any sort of “holy war,” which is the first thing that comes to mind, for many people, when they hear what I sometimes call the “j-word.” I am also not making any sort of comment for, nor against, Islam, but am simply borrowing a word from another language, Arabic, because it applies so well to much of my own life. Another definition you will find here is “a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline” — in other words, an internal struggle to do the right thing. While I am not religious in any conventional sense, I definitely understand the important idea of an internal, mental — or “spiritual,” if you prefer — struggle. My personal internal struggle involves a never-ending effort to maintain self-control, especially over destructive emotions, such as hatred, and fury. Fury isn’t simply anger, after all — it goes far beyond that. It is an absolutely horrific state of mind where one is so overcome by anger that the rational self becomes utterly consumed by white-hot, blinding rage.

For years, without realizing it, I was a theophobe — hardly surprising, considering the religious elements of the more unpleasant parts of my childhood. Theophobia is not a familiar word to most people, but it can exist in both religious and non-religious people, and can be defined as an irrational fear and hatred of God, religion, religious people, and religious institutions, such as churches and mosques. There have been entire years — especially since the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal blew wide-open in the media, worldwide — when I could not bring myself to go near a church of any denomination, let alone enter one, for fear that being near such a place would trigger a panic attack, or, even worse, a PTSD “freakout” episode. It isn’t hard to spot theophobes, of course; they are easily identified, especially among the much larger, rapidly-growing group of people who call themselves atheists. You probably know at least a few atheists yourself, and might have noticed that some of them seem to be at peace with life, and can easily interact peacefully with religious people — while others are a perfect fit for the “angry atheist” stereotype, attacking religion as if it were the source of all evil in the world. It isn’t, but that didn’t stop me from thinking that it was, for many years.  Recovering from theophobia is not easy, and is definitely a struggle, but is also very much worth the effort.

Unusually, several of the people I am now grateful to, specifically for helping me recover from theophobia, are practicing Muslims. This doesn’t fit the stereotype of Islam portrayed in the Western media, of course. If you get all of your information about Islam from stories in the news, you might think all Muslims hijack airplanes, commit suicide bombings, oppress women, and decapitate “infidels” every time they get they chance. Fortunately, I started using another approach, while still in college:  conversation. Simply by talking to Muslims I am now proud to call my friends, I have learned several things, among them that most Muslims are kind and decent people, and also that most Muslims intensely dislike the extremists within Islam — about as much as the average Christian dislikes, say, the Westboro Baptist Church. Adding practicing Christians to the list of people I can successfully engage in productive conversation took a lot longer, but the reason for this has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, and everything to do with my own personal history. My father was, after all (among many other things), an ordained Christian minister. Later, he moved through several other religions, attempting to drag my family along with him, and these religions included his own warped version of amalgamated Native American religious traditions, the Soka Gakkai sect of Buddhism, and several others. A notable absence on this list — one of the few religions with which my father never developed an obsession — is Islam. This fact made Islam, and those who practice it, a logical place for me to start the process of making peace with certain inescapable facts: (1) the world contains billions of religious people, most of whom are not dangerous fanatics, and (2) religion is not going away any time soon, no matter how much the furious theophobes of the world rage against it.

This personal recovery-process is not over; I still have much internal, mental work left to do, especially when it comes to establishing peace with Christianity, the world’s largest religion. The important thing, at this point, is that I am doing it. I’m quite happy to have left the “angry atheist” phase of my life in the past, where it belongs, and have no intention of returning there.

“Antisemitism” has become an inherently confusing word. Here’s how to fix this problem.

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When referring to the Holocaust, it never caused confusion to refer to Nazis as “antisemitic.” German is not a Semitic language, and the non-Semite Nazis were trying to exterminate an ethnoreligious group, the Jews, who are a Semitic people. In that context, the word “antisemitism,” in a European setting, is not difficult to understand. This is also true of antisemitism earlier in European history.

Decades later, and outside of Europe, however, the situation has changed, and the word “antisemitism” is now far less clear in its meaning. The one nation most closely identified with the Jewish people is Israel, and Israel is not in conflict with Germany. Israel is, of course, currently in an active conflict with an organization, Hamas, which has been firing rockets from nearby Gaza across the border, into Israel. In response, Israel has been retaliating, using even greater force than that wielded by Hamas. In this current conflict, there have been numerous deaths of noncombatants, including many children, in Gaza, but no deaths (so far) in Israel. For this reason, some people have raised their voices in criticism of the actions of the Israeli government in the current conflict. Predictably, but not logically, those who are criticizing Israel’s actions are now being accused of antisemitism.

When the word “antisemitic” gets thrown around, in the context of conflicts in the Middle East which involve Israel, it doesn’t help anyone understand anything. The word is actually an impediment to understanding. The reason for this is that “Semite” does not mean what many people think it means. For one thing, most Semites are not Jews.

“Semites” refers to a collection of ethnolinguistic groups — people who speak, or are descended from those who spoke, any of a large collection of languages known as the Semitic languages . . . and one of the Semitic languages is Arabic. Are Jews Semites? Yes, they are, but so are Arabs. The current conflict in the Middle East is a conflict between two different groups of people, both of whom are Semitic. To throw the emotionally-charged word “antisemitic” into the middle of the fray, therefore, makes no sense. It increases confusion, and clarifies nothing. The word also further enflames the emotions of those arguing and fighting, on both sides, in a situation where the exact opposite is needed.

It doesn’t help that many Westerners believe a fallacy related to Arabs, using “Arab” (which refers to an ethnic group) interchangeably with “Muslim,” which is not an ethnic term at all, but one that simply refers to anyone who practices the religion known as Islam. In reality, there are many Arabs who are not Muslims, and there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are not Arabs. For example, consider the people who live in Iran. The governments of Israel and Iran are often hostile to each other, and Iran has very few Arabs, despite being a nation where an overwhelming majority practice Islam.

When Israel has conflicts with other nations (or organizations, for Hamas is not a nation) in the Middle East, those conflicts are political in nature, with religion playing a strong role as well. Israel is associated with the religion of Judaism (even though much of its Jewish population is only ethnically Jewish, not Jewish in the religious sense of the term), and is often in conflict with others in the Middle East who are associated with the religion called Islam. “Antisemitic,” used as a synonym for anti-Jewish bigotry, is an unfortunate misnomer, but there are alternatives which are better, in the sense that they are more specific, and therefore more clear. There is already a word in common use for fear and hatred of Islam and/or Muslims:  “Islamophobia.”  The corresponding term for fear and hatred of Judaism and/or Jews, including those who are Jewish only in the ethnic sense of the word, is “Judeophobia.” Most of the time, when people use the word “antisemitism,” they actually mean Judeophobia. Since Arabs are, themselves, a subset of the Semites, it would be illogical to refer to a specific person who is both an Arab, and a hater of Jews, as an “antisemitic Arab.”  To describe that person as a “Judeophobic Arab,” on the other hand, makes perfect sense.

Finally, it must be recognized that there are numerous people, within both Judaism and Islam, who do not have within them the blind, furious hatred of the other group that has caused so much death and destruction in the Middle East since the founding of the modern nation of Israel, in the years following World War II. I am referring, of course, to non-Islamophobic Jews, and non-Judeophobic Muslims. One does not often see them featured in the news, especially when conflicts such as the current one are raging, but such people do exist, and their existence should give all people who prefer peace over war hope for the future. May their numbers increase.

My Unusual View of Islam, Part II

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My Unusual View of Islam, Part II

For part I, please see this post: https://robertlovespi.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/my-unusual-view-of-islam/

Since publishing my first post on Islam, I’ve received a mixture of praise and criticism for it. Most of the criticism focuses on the fact that, for the most part, I discussed Muslims, rather than the religion of Islam itself, in my first post. This is true; I did do that, and I will attempt to remedy that here.

Let me make clear, though, that I do this without apology for my previous post. Muslims are ambassadors for Islam, just as Christians are ambassadors for their religion. The same can be said for other religions, or even a lack of religion. It is human nature to associate a system of belief with its adherents, and to use observations of the latter when forming opinions of the former.

I have not, however, merely become friends with many Muslims, without studying Islam itself. Because I live in the American South, it is also virtually impossible for me to avoid analyzing Islam by comparing and contrasting it with Christianity. The two forms of Christianity with which I am the most familiar are Roman Catholicism (I’m a former Catholic), and fundamentalist Protestant Christianity of the type which is very common where I live..

The two religions have a remarkable number of similarities, but important differences as well. As Abrahamic religions, both (along with Judaism, of course) are monotheistic. As one who is extremely interested in mathematics, simplicity and consistency are important and appealing to me. Viewed through this lens, Christian monotheism and Islamic monotheism are quite different.

Islam is truly monotheistic, and the deity Muslims worship is described as unlike human beings, neither male nor female, and certainly not divisible into different “persons” of the same deity. This is not the case with any form of Trinitarian Christianity. To accept the Trinity, a core Christian belief, one must accept a mathematical absurdity, for three does not equal one. Islam presents no such problem. To many Muslims (and to me), Christianity appears polytheistic, in fact. I do not have to be a Muslim, nor adhere to any of the beliefs of Islam, to appreciate greater logical and mathematical consistency.

Christianity, by contrast, is cluttered — particularly in the forms of it, such as Catholicism, where veneration of Mary and other saints plays a strong role. Clutter, in any belief system, hold little appeal for me.

The Five Pillars of Islam are also interesting to me, albeit from an outsider’s point of view. The first pillar, the shahada, is an appealingly simple statement of faith and trust: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhummad is his prophet.” As an atheist, I cannot now say this phrase aloud, and honestly believe it — but one who can, need only do so once to convert to Islam. It really is just that simple. Not only does that appeal to me on grounds of aesthetics, for I find simplicity appealing, but it is also a very welcoming aspect of the religion. If I were to recite this phrase to one of my close Muslim friends, they would accept it, and offer to help me learn more about my new religion. I do not think it likely this will ever happen, but neither do I rule it out. I have surprised myself many times before, and am not so bull-headed that I’m going to rule such a possibility out altogether. My burden of evidence, of course, remains high, and I would never even consider uttering this phrase (except when clearly quoting it) as a dishonest act. The fact remains that ease of conversion is, to me, a point in Islam’s favor. Accept the essential core beliefs with a simple and sincere sentence, and you are accepted into Islam. I like that.

The second pillar is the salat, or, as most Westerners know it, prayer five times per day. I have come across Muslims doing this in private areas, such as isolated stairwells. By contrast, American politicians never tire of trying to promote public prayer, which Jesus himself is recorded as speaking against in the Gospels. As an atheist, I do not pray. I appreciate that Muslim prayer has never been pushed on me. I certainly cannot say the same for Christian prayer.

The third pillar is the zakāt — giving alms to the poor. Christian teachings on this subject are similar. I will not criticize either religion for this practice, for I view it favorably in both contexts. There are many people in the world who need help, and I’m not going to quibble over the source of such assistance.

Sawm is the fourth pillar — ritual fasting. The Ramadan fast (to which the image above is related) is unlike typical Christian fasting in that it is much more strenuous. I would have an extraordinarily difficult time doing the Ramadan fast for one day, let alone a full lunar month. I do not fully understand sawm, but I have witnessed the joy of my Muslim friends during this time. It harms no one, for there are special, reasonable provisions to exempt the sick, or those who are otherwise unable, from this rigorous fast. I respect the ability to do something I do not feel I could do myself, provided it is a harmless act, as this fast is.

The fifth pillar is the hajj, or the once-per-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca. My first exposure to this idea was in my reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and his hajj was a transformative experience — one which convinced him that racism has no place in Islam, in contrast to his former beliefs.

I can, and do, find something to admire and respect in each of the Five Pillars.

There is more to Islam than the Five Pillars, of course, but they are at the core. I have been taken to task for not discussing other, less savory things found in the Koran, but no one has shown me anything which exceeds the horror of the more unsavory aspects of the Bible, such as Old Testament misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, genocide, and sexism. The Old Testament actually requires killing disobedient children — something personally horrifying to me, as the son of an extremely abusive father, against whom rebellion was absolutely necessary for personal survival. The New Testament isn’t much better, in my view, with such things as “Slaves, obey your masters” in Ephesians, or the central narrative about God sending his son, who is somehow also God, on a suicide mission to redeem people from sin they somehow inherited from their ancestors. In my view, both books contain some pretty horrific relics of history — but moderate, reasonable Muslims and Christians, both, are moving away from such teachings, and emphasizing those which have a more positive message. Since religion isn’t going away any time soon, I’m all for seeing it transform into something more beneficial, and less harmful, and this is true of any religion.

It must be remembered that Islam is a newer religion than Christianity, by roughly seven centuries. When people describe horrors perpetrated in the name of Islam today — and yes, they are real — it would be good to consider what Christianity was like seven centuries ago, in the Dark Ages.

It’s also worth remembering that Islamic civilization is responsible for preserving much valuable knowledge from the ancient world, through the Western Dark Ages, when the candle of knowledge was very nearly extinguished.

Horrors are perpetrated — today — in the name of both religions. Many claim that this is worse, in the case of Islam, than with Christianity. To that, I respond by pointing out the problem of AIDS in Africa, made much worse by the Vatican’s stubborn opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of this deadly disease. Millions are dying because of this policy. Is this as dramatic, and does it grab as many headlines, as honor killings in Afghanistan, executions in Saudi Arabia, or other such things? No, but it is every bit as deadly and harmful. There is also the horror of Christianity’s pedophilia scandals, of course. No religion has a monopoly on evil.

Some hope that the horrors of religion will finally be erased by the future ascent and dominance of atheism. Frankly, over the next several decades, I think that’s a pipe dream. The moderates within both religions are the key to making them less harmful over time, and anyone who thinks Islam has no moderates has likely fallen victim to stereotypes perpetuated by the Western media and/or politicians. Moderate Muslims are not hard to find; they vastly outnumber the fanatics, as is also the case with Christians.

Islamophobes do not see these moderates, do not appreciate their potential for reigning in the excesses of radical Islam, and often offend them with insults directed at the whole of Islam, as if it is monolithic. It is not, and these sweeping generalizations are not helpful to anyone.

Atheists and other secularists can “imagine no religion” all they want, but these imaginings are going to remain imaginary for a very long time — many generations, likely. A more realistic short-term goal is peaceful coexistence — among those of all religions, and those with none. This won’t happen without the help of moderates in multiple religions, and a reduction of hateful rhetoric from all sides.

Hate helps no one.

My Unusual View of Islam

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My Unusual View of Islam

As most readers of my blog know, I am an atheist. All atheists differ, of course, and one of the ways I differ from almost all of my fellow atheists is that I have a very different view of Islam and Muslims.

I haven’t always been this way. 25 years ago, as an undergraduate, I had unconsciously allowed myself to be heavily influenced by media coverage of the Middle East. I’m embarrassed to admit now that, then, I concluded, simply and uncritically, that this entire region is chock-full of crazy people. I openly speculated that there must be some mind-affecting drug in the water there, to cause such madness as I saw on the TV news.

As I now know, TV networks are very selective about what they show. Burning American flags make the news, to the exclusion of coverage of the millions of sane, kind people in the Muslim world, for they are not viewed as newsworthy.

I will always be grateful to my Muslim friends for helping me make this transformation. They key was getting to know them, one at a time — not as Muslims, per se, but simply as people. After getting to know them, and calling them friends, falling into the type of thinking which is dominated by stereotypes quickly became impossible, for the stereotypes did not match the behavior of any of my friends. I was given a choice between believing TV, or the evidence gathered with my own eyes and ears, and that’s always an easy choice.

It is a shame, but it is true: bigotries are only lost one at a time. I am delighted to be free of my former Islamophobia.

I now have dozens of Muslim friends, all over the world. If it bothers them that I am not a believer, they politely keep that to themselves. They’re always willing to answer my questions about Islamic practices and beliefs, but never use such questions as an opportunity to try to convert me.

The contrast with Christianity, in my experience, is vivid. Of course, I do not experience Islam as one might in, say, Iran. I also do not experience Christianity as everyone else in the world, for I live in the American South, the part of the USA with the highest rates of religiosity, and a form of Christianity in ascendance which is often intolerant of others, in the extreme. Here, I have had many (but not all, of course) Christians react to my atheism quite negatively. I have to remind myself, often, that Christianity here is unusual when viewed through a world-wide lens. For example, consider evolution. Around much of the Christian world, believers have, long ago, “grown up” on the subject of evolution. Pope John Paul II himself said that he viewed it as valid. This in not the case here in the South, where Christianity often goes hand-in-hand with Creationism, a pseodoscience to which I have a quite negative reaction, due to my strong and life-long fascination with, and respect for, real science.

There is also my personal history in play here. I have suffered horrible abuse (I’ll spare you the details) at the hands of Christians, often with the abuse having specifically religious elements. By contrast, no Muslim has ever even tried to harm me, in any way.

Most Americans, of course, think “terrorist” when they hear the word Muslim. The cure for this is simple: make friends with Muslims, and discuss this with them. You’ll learn that most Muslims detest organizations such as Al-Qaeda, and are quick to disavow them. The fact is, the Christian world has its share of such people as well; they’re the types of Christian who shoot doctors and bomb women’s health clinics. Extremists can be found everywhere, and the only reason extremists are of a particular type is almost always the same:  a simple accident of birth.

Pick one hundred Christians at random, and its almost certain that you won’t find one fitting this description. Repeat this with one hundred random Muslims, and the odds against you finding a terrorist in your sample are also almost-certain.

Sometimes, people learn that I have a generally favorable view of mainstream Islam, and wonder why I don’t convert. That’s simple: I am unconvinced that any deity or deities exist, due simply to a lack of evidence, and one cannot be a Muslim without honestly believing that a single deity exists. However, I don’t need to be a Muslim to treat Muslims as actual people, and to fight the scourge of Islamophobia wherever I find it.

Unfortunately, there’s a LOT of Islamophobia out there — and it is, sadly, very strong in the loosely-knit community of atheists. I get asked, for example, to participate in “Everyone Draw Muhummad Day” on Facebook, every year. I always refuse. Is this censorship? No, it’s simply my choosing not to offend my friends for no good reason at all.

Throughout the years I have encountered many people who rabidly hate Islam, and they are usually either Christians or atheists. I try to reason with them. It usually doesn’t work, but sometimes it does, so I generally try it anyway. Hate doesn’t help anyone, and the more of it we can rid ourselves of, the better off all of us will be.

[Later edit:  part II of this post may be found right here — https://robertlovespi.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/my-unusual-view-of-islam-part-ii/]