11 April 2010


In her NYTimes column, Maureen Dowd arrives at a moment of catharsis -- noting the striking similarities between two religions in which "women are subordinated; the ruling authority is an inbred and wealthy men's club cloistered behind walls and disdaining modernity; the autocratic authority of the church ignores the progress of women in the secular world; and men in dresses allow their religious kingdom to decay and cling to outdated misogynistic rituals, blind to the benefits of welcoming women's brains, talents and hearts into their ancient fraternity."

The two religions on question? Catholic Christianity and Islam. (Note the similarities of dress in both images, emphasizing uniformity and concealment of the woman as though she were visually offensive.) Both Catholics and Muslims have allowed the original teachings of their respective prophets, Jesus and Mohammed, to be perverted by fundamentalist men straight out of the Dark Ages. Negating women, Dowd says, is at the heart of both churches' hideous -- and criminal -- indiference to the welfare of boys and girls in its care. Catholics struggle with (among other scandals) the sexual violation of boys by priests, hidden by (therefore sanctioned by) the church. Muslims struggle with the twisted transformation of boys into warrior/martyrs, suicidal soldiers of jihad.

Many years ago I came to the conclusion that such excesses are only part of the long list of examples of intellectual and moral bankruptcy perpetuated by organized religion. I realized that nearly every advance in our knowledge of ourselves, the world we inhabit, and the universe has been systematically resisted by religion. Church leaders often take centuries to admit they may have been wrong in their beliefs -- e.g. believing that the earth is the center around which all the planets and stars revolve; that all matter and life was miraculously created 6000 years ago by a purportedly omniscient, omnipotent supernatural being; that the scientific explanations posed by physics, evolutionary biology and paleontology were only acceptable if viewed through the lens of church orthodoxy; et al.

Further, I reflected that there are thousands of religions, each claiming to be the correct interpretation of the world. How could they all be right? And if one is wrong, might not they all be wrong? Unlike science, in which every hypothesis must be testable, verifiable, and most importantly falsifiable, religion lamely falls back on a leap of faith. You believe, or you don't, regardless of the evidence, or lack of evidence.

I'm more inclined toward the principle of parsimony -- the simplest explanation (supported by evidence) is likely to be the correct one. Increasingly, as our understanding of ourselves and the world grows, there is less and less need for the irrelevance of superstition/religion. The positive aspects of religious faith -- a sense of community, doing good works, attaining internal peace -- can all be achieved without a religious framework. Parsimony.

Like any human institution, religion is prone to corruption, greed, scandal. Dustin Hoffman's character in the film Straw Dogs notes that more wars have been fought and more lives ruined in the name of religion than by any other cause. Religion is exclusionary (we vs. them) rather than inclusive. Religion sees the world in stark, black and white terms, with little room for the subtlety or nuance or ambiguity which embody human reality.

With regard to the current scandal in the Catholic church, another film, Sleepers, brings home in stark and horrifying images the degradation of innocent human beings by adults. Although the abuse is not in a Catholic setting, the commonality of theme is unquestionable.

So Maureen Dowd's moment of illumination is a good start. But only a start. Women and men of the world, greet each other as equals -- we need the insights and talents and strengths of all the human species, not just half of it.

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