Be Careful What You Call God
January 28, 2010
Every week, if not more often, it seems there is a reminder about the ridiculous disputes caused by religion. Last week, we had the controversy over gun sights with New Testament messages. This week there is an escalation of the controversy in Malaysia about what word non-Muslims can use to refer to God.
Here's the background: On December 31, the Malaysia High Court ruled that a Catholic newspaper could use the word "Allah" when referring to God, overturning a government ban on use of that word by non-Muslims. The Catholic newspaper argued that in the Malay language, "Allah" means "God," so there was no effective way to discuss God without that word. The recommended substitute, "tuhan," which means "lord," has different connotations, suggesting a political ruler or boss, and also would have made it difficult to translate expressions such as "the Lord God." The Catholic newspaper also pointed out that the word "Allah" was used in the Arabic language to designate God in pre-Islamic times, so its history is not tied to Islam.
(Actually, I think we should call God "Brownie," the nickname for Bush's head of FEMA. It suggests the right level of incompetence, especially when dealing with disasters.)
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the ruling sparked protests and violence, including attacks by Muslims on churches. Following an appeal by the government, the High Court stayed its ruling.
But it could not stay the turmoil between Muslims and Christians (and other religious minorities). In the latest incident, the severed heads of wild boars were left at two mosques. Since Muslims regard pigs as unclean, this is considered a grave insult.
When I read a story about the last incident, I was reminded of Karen Armstrong's claim in her recent book The Case for God. (My review will appear in the next issue of Free Inquiry .) Armstrong claims that mainstream religion is concerned with ritual and conduct, not beliefs, and disputes over words and concepts have only been the concern of fringe elements in the world's different faith systems.
Oh, really? Pardon the pun, but this is just hogwash. Ordinary believers throughout history have been very much preoccupied with dogma and the words and concepts used to articulate their beliefs. Saying the wrong word, rejecting accepted concepts can get you killed. And apparently one can't even discuss God if doing so entails use of a word regarded sacred by some. Don't touch my Allah!
Maybe some day people will just drop all the God-talk and we can stop this nonsense.
(OK, I know that's wishful thinking.)
In the meantime, I feel sorry for the boars -- especially as they were probably more intelligent than the disputants on either side.
#1 Kritikos on Thursday January 28, 2010 at 4:24pm
(Actually, I think we should call God “Brownie,” the nickname for Bush’s head of FEMA. It suggests the right level of incompetence, especially when dealing with disasters.)
I’m sorry that I know nothing of Armstrong’s book from first-hand acquaintance (though I now have a borrowed copy of it), but I would expect that what she means by “mainstream religion” means “mainstream religion in Europe and North America,” or something like that. I am not sure how or whether the term—which is, of course, inherently vague—would apply to any variety of Islam practiced in other parts of the world, such as Malaysia. Is Islam itself supposed to be part of the “main stream,” because it is one of the oldest and most widely practiced religions in the world, or does “main stream” mean something like “fitting in well with secular and democratic systems of government,” in which case only some varieties of Islam will count?
It seems to me that the issue here is who defines the content of a particular religion: those recognized within it as authorities, or the mass of followers? Islam is the state religion of Malaysia (as I learn from Wikipedia), so the High Court presumably has some kind of religious as well as secular authority. The contrast here does not seem to be between “main stream” and “fringe” elements of Islam, say, but between those who have some degree of learning and authority in a particular national religious institution and the rank and file of its adherents. Or have Muslim clergy taken sides with the rabble? The news articles that I have seen do not say.
#2 innaiah narisetti (Guest) on Friday January 29, 2010 at 3:17pm
Narisetti Innaiah feels that genuine secularism is only to seperate state and religion in all walks of life and keep religious beliefs to personal level. Then problems will minimise. It will take long time to convince believers but that is necessary reform.
#3 Nutty Corvette Forum Posters (Guest) on Friday January 29, 2010 at 4:04pm
Ron I agree with you 100%
But there is no reasoning with some people.
The biggest religious nutjobs on the Internet hang out at the Corvette forum, where, you if follow this thread you can see that atheists are getting blamed for the increase in Islam in the United Kingdom.
#4 Nutty Corvete Forum Posters (Guest) on Friday January 29, 2010 at 4:04pm
#5 Nutty Corvete Forum Posters (Guest) on Friday January 29, 2010 at 4:06pm
htt p:/ /foru ms.corvetteforum. com/politics-religion-and-controversy/2517528-atheist-group-protests-mother-teresas-commemorative-u-s-postal-stamp. html
#6 JohnnyCrash on Monday February 01, 2010 at 11:31am
“In the meantime, I feel sorry for the boars—especially as they were probably more intelligent than the disputants on either side.” HAHA!
As much as I dislike the polarization of politics, it rarely results in violence or The Godfather-like severing of animal heads and leaving them in dramatic locales. Religion on the other hand, routinely resorts to violence and has done so throughout history.
Having been raised in a certain Christian denomination I can attest to the obsession of learning bible words and verses, which often led to heated arguments with others. I have Catholic friends who pride themselves on knowledge of Saints, Papal Bulls, and listing the popes like a schoolchild would list the Presidents.
The only way to end this madness is to expose the sacred texts for what they are - ancient myths. This will not be done from within the ranks of the believers, therefore it is our job.
“Actually, I think we should call God “Brownie,” the nickname for Bush’s head of FEMA. It suggests the right level of incompetence, especially when dealing with disasters.” HAHA!
This is what I mean. The Bible and the Koran show god to behave like a petty, prideful, violent human, they disregard common sense and scientific fact, and they contain horrid morality. For Malaysia’s religious to argue petty details and resort to violence is akin to commiting violence over Greek myths or Spider Man’s comic book plots. The harm of religion hinges on belief in fiction.
For instance, myth and magic: Muhammad’s mythological horse Baraq, who carried him from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven where old Moe spoke to dead people - all in one night and without a space suit or a seance. The Hebrew Bible has giants like King Og and Goliath as well as Balaam’s talking donkey (can’t forget Eden’s talking snake). The New Testament has Jesus’ magic show (walking on water, quieting storms, speaking to dead people on a mountain top, etc).
The morality of these sacred texts are a mix of good, bad, and ugly. Most often violence and genocide is the morality they perscribe. To read the Hebrew Bible’s book of Joshua is to read about a disgusting campaign of genocide in which even children were slaughtered. To read the Christian Bible is no better, there is a great deal of judgment, weeping, and gnashing of teeth - welcome to hell, pick your place on the spit. Of course, Islam fares no better. The Koran steals a verse from the Old Testament’s Leviticus 26:8 and regurgitates it in “The Spoils” sura (8:65), which claims a small number of believers are capable of killing many heathens. The Mosaic law stole from Hammurabai’s code, so plagiarisms between sacred texts is nothing new. One of my favorite Islamic stories of violence comes from the Hadith where Muhammad burns the eyes out of a group of people and chops their hands and feet off, leaving them to bleed to death.
“<insert religion> is a faith of peace.” is often the worst oxymoron commonly uttered. Whether religion overtly preaches violence, or violence simply occurs as a byproduct of bickering about tedious and inane articles of faith, the end result is the same… people motivated by belief in fiction to violence against others.
Interesting article Ronald! Your humor made me chuckle as well