Monday, June 29, 2009

What Makes a Religion Good?

The Stoning of Soraya M: Part I

I went and saw a movie Saturday night. It made me think...

The Movie

A lot of people are going to watch The Stoning of Soraya M and write the film off as insensitive or stereotypical in its treatment of Islam. I disagree.

All the film's characters are Muslim. Some do terrible things and some do good things, but the film isn't about religion. In a nutshell, it sets misogyny in an Iranian village—Islam just forms part of the cultural fabric.

Nevertheless, the film is based on a true story and therefore begs the question: What does Islam have to do with it? Does the religion lend itself to violent injustice?

Never fear to ask the question

Islam confuses westerners. The European response has been largely aggressive and has focused on Islam's fundamentalist elements. Yet while the months following 9/11 witnessed an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, such attitudes have been largely overwhelmed by the call for tolerance and understanding (reflecting a focus on civil rights).

Still, few people seem eager to discuss the issue, but not for lack of motivation. Violent protests following the publication of cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, hundreds of terrorist cells worldwide, genocide in Sudan, the fallout after Iran's recent elections, rejection of the historicity of the Holocaust... Injustice across the globe can be linked to varied strains of Islam.

(Please, I beg you, don't regurgitate the same worn-out line that Islam isn't the only religion connected these types of things. In modern times, no other religion can be linked to travesties of such gravity.)

Of those willing to consider the situation, a plurality seems to conclude that the links between Islam and such injustice are no mere coincidence. They suggest that practicing Muslims perceive Allah as distant and cold. Such a relationship, they conclude, contributes to the development of radical fundamentalism.

I'm skeptical, and certainly not knowledgeable enough to comment. I'll leave that to the theologians and offer this instead.

Basic Islam

At its most basic level, Islam offers human beings another avenue to express their belief in a God or gods. A reflection of a near-universal human experience, only since the Enlightenment have significant numbers of people begun to exclude the notion of the divine from their lives. Nevertheless, even such atheism or agnosticism cannot ignore fundamental questions about life, its meaning, humanity, its direction, and so forth. Islam offers one answer.

Moreover, my limited knowledge of the Qur'an informs me that the Muslim holy book includes passages concerning charity, kindness, justice, and peace. The review of these elements of that faith doubtlessly uplifts humanity. The same can be said for the positive impact of Islam's moral code.

The Lovely Zahra

Only one character in the film has a religious experience worth mentioning. To her, religion transcends the cultural. She longs for God.

As Soraya approaches death, Zahra stands by her side and demands the dignity due her. Just before her execution, she tells her "Pray, pray with all your might. God and paradise are waiting for you." And in response to Soraya's fear of dying, she offers: "You are innocent. God knows it. He will take care of you. He will give you courage."

Zahra's religious faith approaches the furthest reach of human optimism. She stands with those who steadfastly hope in a God of love and mercy; those to whom God cannot be sterile, cold, or apathetic. And it is this faith that carries her when human strength fails—this faith that allows her to stand by Soraya.

Good Religion

Even skeptics of religion ought to agree that any faith which inspires human beings to acts of heroic love has real value. In fact from the secular perspective, a religion is only valuable inasmuch as it helps its followers to uplift humanity.

The recognition of the 'Golden Rule' does not make a religion special. An examination of one's own heart reveals the truth therein. No, a religion is special when it supports the limits of human optimism. A religion has value when it sustains our most desperate hope that love will triumph.

I doubt Islam is the problem, but unless its doctrine consistently inspires true self-giving it is hardly the solution.


  1. I'm not positive I understand what you think the ultimiate goal of relgion is. Tell me if I'm wrong, but what I gathered is that you think religions is the belief in any God or gods that will ultimately lead to love, understanding, and general well-being towards others. It seems to me that you can accomplish all those things, to some degree at least, without the company of religion.

    Please don't get me wrong, I have a religion and I believe in it strongly. I just simply wanted to state that if the reason for religion to some is to help in secular goodness, I feel that would be blasphemous to whatever the chosen religion is.

    I liked the post, and now I want to see the movie!

  2. I also highly recommend the movie it is rough to watch at parts (the stoning scene) but worth it.

    From the studying of Islam I have done, one semester only, I have learned a couple of key things concerning the religion.

    1) First of all, why is Islam confusing to Westerners?
    For one, to understand the religion it is necessary to understand the history, the Quaran and the Hadith (the two books containing the teachings of Islam), as well as the life of Muhammad the prophet of Islam. Many simply do not have the time to study in depth a religion that for some seems far away and unimportant.
    A second relevant point is that unless one reads the Quaran in Arabic, according to Islamic tradition, he does not receive the full meaning of the teachings of Allah.
    Finally, the Islamic concept of Allah(God) is much different from the Judeo/Christian perception of God (which is a God who is Father). As you pointed out, the Muslim often views God as distant, cold, and even harsh.

    2) Many write off the violence and abuses attributed to Islam as solely coming from radical Islamic extremists. Many will state that the majority of Muslims and the true Islam is a peaceful religion. Even Muslims will argue this point and I concede, this does have at least some truth. However, the history of Islam claims contrary to this modern idea that Islam is a religion of peace.

    3) Now it can also be said of Christianity that this faith's history is also filled with terror, destruction, abuse, and conquest. This too contains a grain of truth. However, in the same way that Christian living is supposed to be based of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, a Muslim bases his life, off of the teachings and life of Muhammad. Herein lies the major difference that further points to Islam not necessarily being a religion of peace and goodwill. Muhammad, throughout the Quaran, acts in ways which would certainly be called into question in our modern world. His marriage to a nine year old girl, the taking of nine wives, the attempt at exterminating is old tribe because of their contempt of him and the list goes on. Actions such as these are found throughout the Quaran and in fact the acts of violence increase as one progresses chronologically through the book. When people were not receptive of Islam, Muhammad would try various means of converting tribes and peoples and he would often go as far as conquest.

    I could go on, but I just wanted to give a brief summary of some things I've learned in regards to the Islamic faith. From what I've read and heard it is easy for me to see where such horrible atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. I am not convinced Islam is a religion of peace because the Prophet of the Religion was the majority of the time not a man of peace.

  3. Brian,

    "I doubt Islam is the problem, but unless its doctrine consistently inspires true self-giving it is hardly the answer"

    This is a good and powerful quote. I think religions in general do not last long unless they have a core selfless doctrine.

    Time is a great crucible for many things, including selflessness.

  4. I the whole post, but especially the last paragraph...very strong stuff.

    To me, as you stated Brian, Religion is a way of expressing love in its deepest form, or a way of living with a true hope that love will triumph over all. It gives us a sense that there is more to every situation; that there is an opportunity to love in every choice, every movement of our day. When we act in and out of love for our fellow man or woman, we are moved to build up, not tear down. We are moved to serve, not destroy. We are moved to seek the greater good in every situation, not inspired towards anger or hate of others...even if we are wronged by another, or if we do not share the same beliefs.

    Your final comment struck me in the above way. Good post!

  5. I enjoy the whole post*

  6. There are two sides to religion:
    1) true religions, i.e. the Catholic Church and, to some lesser extent, Christianity and Judaism
    2) religion in general, the response to the natural desire for God, all authentic expressions of this response.

    Therefore, I agree with everything you said as regards religion in general but true religions by their nature are held to different criteria.

  7. Brian-you are really well spoken. I think its time to move beyond blogging and start one of your own satirical columns in the NY times....for real.