A rant about organized religion
by Tristan Dickison, staff writer
The cogs aren’t turning in the Middle East peace process; they’re grinding and about to spin out. Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians have devolved into a standoff. Even the bravest politicians now cower before their respective warhawks and bicker over conditional prerequisites, while real blood runs on aid flotillas and outside synagogues.
Is it cynical to call this the latest stage in an ongoing blood feud in the name of God? No, that’s putting it too simply. Worse, it runs the egregious risk of blaming the victims, most of whom have been the arbitrary recipients of bullets and shrapnel. The stalemate right now between Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, and Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian National Authority, seems to have stumped every policy wonk out there. The moratorium on building more homes for Israelis on contested land expired September 26th, and the future looks dim, if not downright bleak. This conflict is indeed full of moving parts, but from far enough away the scaffolding appears clearly: two menacing superstructures of patriarchy and monotheistic religion.
That’s why I say fuck the Man, and especially fuck the Man Upstairs. While I raise an eyebrow at the utopian matriarchies of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, I can see clearly the way patriarchy poisons the real world, from corporatized cotton wads to Shariah law. Patriarchy is hardwired into big religion, and it’s as real as menstrual cramps. The Religious Right is rife with contradiction and repression the world over.
The Quran enticed each 9/11 hijacker with “seventy-two virgins” in aradise, but the same dogma also demanded that each of these men die a virgin. What could these killers, who in another life might have been finishing their B.A.s somewhere, have gained from a single natural conversation with a woman? Or from seeing a woman atop a soapbox, or behind the wheel of a car? We can be certain that at least some of their passion for God would’ve been rerouted back to Earth. Feverish recitations of the Quran only stultify the mind. All improvisation is blasphemy and all creativity, particularly sexual creativity, is policed with a machete.
The remorseless would-be bomber of Times Square, Faisal Shahzad, left his suburban life with a wife and young children to train at a terrorist camp in Pakistan and to learn (not very well, thank science!) how to make car bombs. According to court transcripts, after the judge sentenced him to life without parole in prison, Shahzad said, “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.”
But why pick on Islam when Christianity and Judaism have just as perverted things to say about love? We’re all miserable sinners, and if we masturbate we’ll go blind. How inspiring. Many observant Jewish men thank God every day that they were not born women, as their tradition demands of them, while their mothers, sisters and daughters feel obliged to give modest but constant thanks for their lowliness.
The journalist and political commentator Christopher Hitchens calls monotheistic religion “moral blackmail” because “love is compulsory and must be offered to a higher being whom one must . . . also fear.” The operating logic here seems to be that every ho needs her pimp. This wide-scale moral blackmail has dictated every arrangement between men and women since A.D. 1, the inauspicious first year of “our” lord, fetishizing power and domination.
You may, by this time, dear reader, think me a tad biased. But for my money, the most despicable hypocrites invariably crop up from the ranks of the faithful, and if you think I’m talking about the Spanish Inquisition, just open up today’s newspaper. Take the recent scandal embroiling Bishop Eddie Long. Long, figurehead of the largest Baptist congregation in the American South—as well as one of the most virulently homophobic Black Christian leaders nationwide—was sexually repressed and worse, repressive. Now he must answer to four lawsuits from men who allege he lured them in and molested them. As of this date in early October, Long’s nose (his nose, I say!) is getting even longer as he refuses to explicitly address the charges. To quote the indomitable Hitchens once more: “Take it for granted that sexual moralizing by public figures is a sign of hypocrisy or worse, and most usually a desire to perform the very act that is most being condemned . . . Repression is the problem in the first place.” With these newest revelations of such shameless demagoguery on Earth, it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for Eddie Long to go to.
Or take today’s noisiest example of the raging, political televangelist: Glenn Beck. As a relatively recent arrival to Fox News, Beck has since garnered a massive following through his faith-fueled fireballs and revisionist rants. Many of the supporters flocking to his rallies, including the massive “Restoring Honor” speech in August on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, believe Beck to be a prophet in worldly politics, if not in some supernatural capacity. But as the online publication Buffalo Beast put it: “It’s like someone found a manic, doom-prophesying hobo in a sandwich board, shaved him, shot him full of Zoloft and gave him a show.”
Incredibly, when Beck is on the pulpit and the podium, he possesses the mettle of a twenty-first century Savonarola (the Dominican preacher who ruled Florence from 1494-1498 and gained the consent of the city’s poor by burning the “vanities” of the rich), closely tending the teabagger bonfires across Capitol Hill. And while he and his publishers are wary of their being held accountable for, or in charge of, the T.E.A. Party and its outgrowths, Beck has done more than most public figures to shepherd angry libertarians and conservatives toward a common end and sublimate the donnybrook into political muscle.
Søren Kierkegaard coined the phrase “leap of faith,” but he never meant to suggest that a leap happens only once: the true person of faith leaps constantly. If Beck has faithful supporters, they are the people most willing to leap through his hoops again and again.
If I’m an atheist, I fancy myself a humanitarian as well, and that’s why I believe that if anything bolsters peace in the Middle East, it will take the form of an interfaith dialogue. Talking is vitally important. And this isn’t pillow talk; these people are supremely pissed at each other. I can take umbrage at the three monotheisms and at the same time rally for the most plausible good outcome—not the disappearance of big religions, but a workable peace between them.
So lest this devolve into a screed against faiths of all stripes, I wish to conclude this piece with a confession of my own. This summer I shot a short documentary called Saving the Springs that centered on what can only be called the new New Life of Ted Haggard. In November 2006, Haggard resigned from his position as leader of the National Association of Evangelicals and left his very own New Life Church after a male prostitute alleged that Haggard purchased crystal meth and paid him for sex.
My intention was never to rake Haggard over the coals. In fact, I rather admired his gumption in returning to Colorado Springs after New Life had pretty much banished him from town. But he was back, and with a new church too, so my crew and I headed to The Patriot’s Center to be “saved” ourselves. We’d expected to covertly film snippets of Haggard’s sermon and to ultimately get the jackboot from one of the burlier archangels in his security detail. Instead we filmed most of his sermon and congregation, circling the stage like three hippie paparazzi, after which Ted very kindly agreed to grant me a five-minute personal interview. His wide smile was practiced, but still unnerving. How was I to broach the subject of gay buggery or meth rocks to this amiable, if mawkish, character? Ted’s own son graduated from Colorado College, and if that had any bearing on his cooperation, then I think no less of the man for it. And so we proceeded to have a serious but genuine conversation about faith which, after sufficient editing, resembled the goofier exchange I had hoped for.
After our film class screening, we all unwound in Cornerstone Arts Center’s Studio B while our professors gushed praise. Well, not really. “Alexandra, yours was wonderful. Brittney, yours too. Tristan, yours made a girl cry. Go find her and apologize, please.” She turned out to be a CC student and an Evangelical Christian. Regrettably, I’d been in the front row, chortling too loudly at my own work to hear her quiet sobs three rows back. If that sort of reaction wasn’t a wrench in the works, it did humble me somewhat, as did my final grade in that class. That night I found her and duly apologized, though I first dug myself a deeper hole (“You know, I wasn’t making fun of all Christians, just Evangelical Christians,” to which she indignantly replied “I am an Evangelical Christian!” I felt my cheeks turn the hue of fire and brimstone).
I do still regret not accepting the lunch offer that came a week later. She had promised me over the phone to answer honestly any questions I had regarding her faith. Right away I was convinced that accepting her invitation would signal more than just my own willingness for civil conversation: here was a litmus test of my own bigotry. In anticipation of a second meeting I caught myself preparing to calm down a hysterical person. Did I react thus because my interviewee would be an Evangelical, or was it because this person happened to be a woman as well? True, she’d been teary-eyed during my film—but when we spoke afterward her eyes were dry and lucid, her tones measured but strong. My unsettling reflection was that I might give a fair shake only to women I liked or agreed with. All my feminist noises would ring hollow if this fear proved correct.
Alas, my answer never reached her in time. A week later she was gone, off to study abroad in a country famous for its own questionable history of faith. I should have sat down to lunch with her, even if she’d insisted on paying the tab in the name of Jesus. Agreeing to a direct talk was the least I could have done.