By Douglas Anele

Richard Dawkins highlights another detrimental aspect of religion, that is, the widespread assumption that faith and religious doctrines are especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by a very thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect due to activities or claims in other areas of human endeavour.

But surely the uncritical or irrational privileging of religion especially in public discussions has had, and continues to have, very severe negative repercussions since it allows religious bigots and fundamentalists to get away with atrocities that otherwise should attract severe punishment. Another disturbing offshoot of the absurd phenomenon which has gained currency in recent times is the cheap label of ‘Islamophobia’ used to describe criticism of Islam irrespective of how valid or empirically corroborated the criticism might be, which is at bottom a deceitful cowardly attempt to shield the religion and silence its critics.

The Bible, and therewith Christianity, is not immune to the same problem of underserved exaggerated respect. For instance, the Old and New Testaments contain several passages that prescribe severe punishments, including stoning to death, for blasphemy or heresy, and refusal to accept the teachings of Jesus. Critics of the Bible are usually subjected to silly obloquy for daring to question “the word of God.”

All this is pure nonsense propagated over time especially by those benefiting from religion and the gullible faithful.Anyway, what is so special about organised faith that believers and nonbelievers grant it such uniquely privileged respect? Nothing, except that most people have been brainwashedfrom early childhood to respect religion unquestionably, and since old habits like old soldiers die hard even those that have managed to liberate themselves from religious mental slavery still think that it deserves respect.

Sam Harris is an American writer, philosopher, neuroscientist, and one of the most engaging contemporary critics of religion, especially Christianity and Islam. His trenchant criticisms are contained inThe End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation. Harris is particularly against dogmatism because pretending to know what one does not know which lies at the heart of faith is a negation of the scientific attitude. And although he condemns religion generally, he correctly observes that all religions are not born equal given that some are deadlier than others.

However, considering copious injunctions in Islamic scriptures regarding how muslims should treat non-Muslims, especially unbelievers, and the violence manifest in the history of Islam, it is clear that the dominant orientation flowing from that very religion is exclusivist and intolerant. The ultima ratio for a muslim martyr is this: as long as you are killing infidels or apostates to defend Islam, it does not really matter to Allah whether or not you kill yourself and others in the process.

In other words, once anybody takes seriously some of the distinctive doctrines or claims of Islam on martyrdom and the rewards Allah allegedly has in store for the martyr, to that person beheadings and suicide bombings lose their extremely repulsive andevil character.

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Harris also focused his critical searchlight on Christianity. And what did he find? Especially in the United States of Americas (USA), he discovered that although the country is a liberal democracy not a theocracy some of the highest officials in the three branches of government make decisions based on antiquated biblical principles. Citing several examples of poor judgment and actions taken by top US government officials(including presidents) concerning both domestic and foreign affairs, Harris warns that the intrusion of theological and eschatological thinking into modern politics entails that the dangers of religious faith can hardly be overstated. Presently, millions of Christians and muslims “organise their lives around prophetic traditions that will only find fulfilment once rivers of blood begin flowing from Jerusalem. It is not at all difficult to imagine how prophecies of internecine war, once taken seriously, could become self-fulfilling.”

Another aspect of religion Harris rightly condemns is that faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. It is astonishing that in the twenty-first century puritanical religious bigotsstill think that certain actions which generally do not cause suffering, such as sodomy, disciplined or sensible marijuana use, homosexuality, and termination of blastocysts for research purposes are sins deserving of punishment, and often extol the causes of situations where suffering and death abound (withholding funds for family planning in poor countries, ban on stem cell research, prosecuting nonviolent drug users,etc).

Moreover religion makes reasonable people to believe absurdities, commit atrocities, and yet feel completely justified in doing so by ascribing their insane behaviour to piety and devotion. In his moving epilogue to The End of Faith, Harris affirms that “…we know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of the [universe]; he is unworthyeven of man…There need be no scheme of rewards and punishments transcending this life to justify our moral intuitions or to render them effective in guiding our behaviour in the world. The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith… . “

The Pakistani ex-muslim who wrote under the pseudonym IbnWarraq published a lengthy devastating critique of Islam with the provocative title, Why I am not a Muslim, modelled after Bertrand Russell’s famous 1927 essay, “Why I am not a Christian.”The book can be described as an insider’s detailed and uncompromising analysis of what is wrong with Islam and its devotees, beginning with the origin of the religion itself.

He identifies three types of Islam, namely, Islam 1, Islam 2, and Islam 3. Islam 1 comprises what prophet Muhammad taught as contained in the Koran, while Islam 2 is the religion as expounded, interpreted, and developed by muslim theologians through the traditions (hadith) containing sharia and Islamic jurisprudence. Islam 3 represents Islamic civilisation, that is, the ensemble of achievements by muslims throughout the ages.

Warraq maintains that the impressive accomplishments of Islamic civilisation (Islam 3) were achieved in spite of Islam 1 and Islam 2, and not because of them. More specifically, there is evidence that Islamic philosophy, science, literature and art would not have made meaningful progress had they been based on the Koran and the hadith, both of which are often at odds with, and stifle, freedom of thought and artistic creativity. The creative impulse which underpins the intellectual and artistic achievements of Islamic civilisation actually came mostly from contact with older civilisations that collectively left behind a rich heritage.

In this connection IbnWarraq contends that “Without Byzantine art and Sassanian art there would have been no Islamic art; Islam 1 and 2 were hostile to its development. Similarly, without the influence of Greek philosophy and Greek science there would not have been Islamic philosophy or Islamic science…For the orthodox Islamic philosophy was a contradiction in terms, and Islamic science futile.” It must be pointed out also that the repulsive behaviour of devout muslims towards women, non-muslims, heretics and slaves prevalent in muslim countries is a direct consequence of Koranic principles developed by Islamic jurists.

To be continued.

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