Do the “Big Three Faiths” Mind If You . . . See Other Religions — Or No Religion at All?
For believers, the Abrahamic religions are possessive soulmates.
Judaism gives us the Ten Commandments, the first four of which, nearly half — “no other gods,” “no idol worship,” “no ‘taking the name in vain,’” “keep the Sabbath holy” — deal with reverence for, and the exclusivity of one’s relationship with, God; the Fifth Commandment, “respect your mother and father,” might be seen as a logical extension of the first four, another way of saying, “show reverence for extant systems of hierarchy and authority.”
Christians claim that the only way to salvation is via Jesus: No Jesus? No Peace. Know Jesus? Know Peace — the bumper sticker riff on Romans 5:1.
Islam teaches that the Qur’an is “the final revelation” from Allah, and must, therefore, be universally obeyed.
We might view those signs of “jealousy” — demands for monotheism, rather than monogamy; an emphasis on strict adherence to orthodoxy — as the primary, or perhaps the primal, sources of tension between religious imperatives: “The performance of faith” versus what we might call “the performance of good.”
We might subsume under that rubric as well the questions of heresy and apostasy, which we can, somewhat reductively, view as injunctions to extend ones own “faith obligations” to others: not enough that I “bow before my God”; I must work that — all! — others do so as well.
So, at core, what are the bedrock injunctions of the Abrahamic religions?
Are they to be “good” Jews/Christians/Muslims, in a mechanistic sense, respectful of and attentive, always, to the details of observance, and obedient to “the letter of holy law” — ignoring the ways in which this might contravene “the spirit of the law”?
Or to be — and, most importantly, to do — “good”?
Why Respect Matters
To be clear, as an agnostic, while I do not favor the former position — conformance to ritual and blind respect for orthodoxy — I do not think it wholly irrational or without merit.
Go back to the — arguably linked — matter of respect for parents.
Parents are, first and foremost, teachers.
While our children are under our direct guardianship, we work, above all else, to keep them safe; we endeavor to extend this protection throughout their adult lives largely via instruction given and wisdom imparted during childhood: eat this, not that; never touch this plant; escape from threat X using strategy Y; always treat people in this way, not that way.
And — at whatever age and in pretty much any context — we do not learn from people, or other sources, that we do not respect; the inculcation of respect — in the matter of religion, typically shading into awe — is therefore a necessary precursor to both learning and, not unrelated, to obedience.
While a teacher’s demand for respect may sometimes be shallow and egocentric, at core, when appropriately deployed, it redounds less to the benefit of the instructor and more to the benefit of the instructed: we need to take education seriously before we can truly learn.
Allowing students to disrespect a teacher or a classroom impedes — at the extreme, can make impossible — their education: and the crossover — or cross-pollination — between teaching and religion should be obvious.
Consider the Sanskrit word “Guru,” an appellation which means both “teacher” and “spiritual master,” one who leads students out of darkness — which may be construed as ignorance, faithlessness, or a combination of the two — and into the light, which may be seen as knowledge, revelation, or a combination of the two.
Us vs. Them
While the Abrahamic Patriarchs — Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed — are often seen as avatars of the divine, their on-the-ground, lived realities represent them as heads of new, emerging, communities, starting out as small bands of what might fairly be described as “dissidents,” who stand in opposition to an often oppressive status quo.
In the “dissident band” context, respect and loyalty and fidelity — constituent parts of adherence to orthodoxy — are not abstract concepts, lightly bruited about; they can make the difference between life and death.
Follow Moses up out of Egyptian slavery and to the Promised Land . . . or die at the hands of Pharaoh’s army.
Join the followers of Mohamed . . . or be slaughtered by the Meccan tribes arrayed against him.
Jesus was qualitatively different, in that regard, advocating nonviolence in the present — “love thy enemies” — while promising salvation and life everlasting in the hereafter, defying the religious leaders of his time while bowing to the civil authorities (“render unto Caesar,” etc.).
We can see secular parallels to that ethos of “sacrifice for the embattled dissident group” in famous quotes from the American Revolution: Patrick Henry’s, “Give me liberty or give me death!” and Nathan Hale’s, “I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country,” spring immediately to mind.
My “Country,” Right or Wrong
As the Abrahamic faiths grew beyond the places of their origin, however — noteworthy that Jerusalem is a sacred space for all three — they changed in fundamental ways.
Two of the three faiths quickly morphed from being “bands of rebels” to being the dominant “governing authorities.”
From Christianity becoming the faith of the Roman Empire to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and, into the 20th century, the “saving” of “savages,” via an imperialism that wielded a sword in one hand and the cross in the other, to the Qur’anic injunction that “The Final Revelation” admitted only three possible responses — conversion, obedience, or death — they went from “speaking truth to power” to simply being . . . The Power.
Religious orthodoxy is thus frozen in the amber of secular law.
(While the spreading of the faith is a primary injunction in both Christianity and Islam, Judaism, by way of contrast, is, if anything, anti-evangelical, discouraging, rather than encouraging, conversion.)
That transition, from religion being personal — an intimate, shared, small group experience — to religion becoming inextricably entwined in dominant political structures, becoming an instrument of governance, a creature of the state, if you will, I would argue, heralded a shift from a focus on faith as a shared commitment to overarching values, to a requirement — often enforced by violence — that “the laws” be obeyed, with the line between secular law and religious law being something between blurred and wholly eradicated. (Here, again, Judaism is something of an outlier. Jewish law is meant to be enforced by Jews, on Jews, not to govern other groups.)
Once this synthesis is complete — Onward, For God, King, and Country! — to be “negligent” regarding religious orthodoxy is no longer “merely” a matter of personal immorality or dereliction of duty, it becomes, rather, a threat to the very fabric of society.
Abandon God — or stray too far from orthodox observance — and the next in line for questioning are . . . King and Country.
In similar fashion, patriarchy, and the subjugation of women, rests in significant part on religious underpinnings: God rules the world as the king rules the country as a man rules his family. Once that first domino falls . . .
Rigid adherence to orthodoxy, in that frame, becomes then not simply an imperative, if one is to avoid a personal “fall from a state of grace,” but rather an absolute, existential necessity, if one is to avoid “the fall of the state.” Thus do religions which all stress our obligations to help the weak and the powerless become, perversely, primary instruments of the powerful.
The Challenge — and the Opportunity — of Pluralism
There is a specifically American answer to the quandary of orthodoxy.
The Deists who were largely responsible for America’s founding documents were keenly aware of the dangers of Church/State entanglement: Franklin, Hamilton Jefferson, Madison, and Washington — along with Gouverneur Morris, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine, among others — were either self-proclaimed Deists or espoused philosophies that broadly overlapped Deism.
Their “firewall” between Church and State is at the heart of one of the fundamental — if, it sometimes seems, intentional — misunderstandings regarding the prohibition of state sponsorship of religion in the Constitution of the United States.
In part, that ban is meant to protect the state from distorting, theocratic — and, in a pluralistic society, thus discriminatory — influences; why, after all, should someone else’s religion be “the boss of me”?
But the Founders were also protective of the sanctity of religious belief: in equal measure, they didn’t want the state to corrupt the church — weaponizing, and thereby distorting, sectarian moral precepts as instruments of governance and control.
And I think it fair to say that, certainly in the Constitutional architecture that they hammered out, the Deists came down squarely on the “do good,” rather than the “obey orthodoxy,” side of the ledger. The Founders were obviously moralists — in the positive sense of that word, to be clear — but Deism generally rejects dogma and ritual, the “meat and potatoes” of orthodoxy, while maintaining a belief in the “rational case” for the existence of a Supreme Being.
I remain skeptical of the “logical argument” for a Supreme Being — the “leap of faith” point of view I understand, although I do not share it.
But the “ditch the cant but keep the conscience” path?
I’m on board with that.
The world would be a much better place, if we privileged ethical behavior over “religion as theatre.” And, anyway, I doubt that a Supreme Being would be taken in by a fussy, self-righteous, OCD, adherence to the orthodoxy of how we “punctuate” religious texts while the underlying message, common across the Abrahamic faiths — that we should treat each other with decency and compassion, that we should especially strive to help the powerless — is studiously ignored.
More Musings: Here