Just this morning I visited CNN’s Belief Blog to see if there were any interesting matters of faith being discussed. I was not surprised to find that recent featured blogs dealt with the recent shooting at a Sikh Gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisc.
What I was surprised with was the discussion taking place in the comments of most of those blogs. People just going back and forth ruthlessly with personal attacks and ill-supported claims about whether or not God exists, whether or not Hindus are violent or peaceful, whether or not India is a democracy, whether or not violence is a part of religion, etc. It was sad because here’s a moment for a nation to reflect on the unfortunate incidents that occurred in Wisconsin and maybe discuss why that is wrong and can be avoided in the future and yet here is a sampling of the nation that is just taking part in more mud-slinging – mud-slinging that is done vociferously by faithful and atheists alike so if one thinks religion makes people extreme, the lack of one seems to do just the same.
But putting those emotions aside, I wanted to think about some of the points that were coming up in the blogs themselves and in some of the comments.
1. Turbans – outwards signs of a faith that causes extreme reaction because it’s personal. This article made me think once again about outward religious symbols. A person commented on this blog by saying that no sign or religious mark is really a part of a religion and does not truly signify faith:
Wearing a turban doesn’t make anyone any more Sikh than wearing a cross makes someone a Christian, carrying a rosary around makes someone a Catholic, wearing a hijab makes a woman a Muslim, wearing a beard and avoiding non-animal powered machinery makes anyone Amish…those are all earthly doo-dads and bangles and have nothing to do with religion. You can be a member of your religion without practicing any of these affectations.
I think Dal4cats has a point. The mark itself cannot always speak for one’s true, internalized faith. People who are not as religious, who do not truly believe or truly act according to one’s beliefs may still wear outward religious marks. However, that does not mean those symbols cannot stand for someone’s faith (though it may be imperfect and still in formation). Just think about the battle that a Sikh who wears a turban goes through internally. Every time he wraps on that piece of cloth, every time he looks in the mirror, every time he sees someone else’s eyes stare, when he’s called names or “randomly” chosen for a security check, he goes through a reaffirmation battle of remaining faithful to his faith. How can that not signify some level of faith? And just because you are Sikh and don’t wear a turban doesn’t mean that you have a true faith that does not need external show – you can simply be afraid of the tests that external sign will place you in or that constant reminder of who you are. So let’s not attack the use of symbols because they can and cannot mean something and we really can’t be the judge since we can’t truly test the faith of anyone else.
What we should be addressing is why we should or should not accept people’s public and personal representations of who they are. In particular, I want to address those people who believe that for all of us to get along and accept each other it is necessary to ban such external religious symbols – the French surely fall into this category with their laws against public exhibition of faith but so do some of the people who are quoted in the above linked blog and their commenters. My point is this: if you only accept a uniform and cleansed image of people in society and relegate things that make them unique or form their individual or subgroup identity into their personal homes or other spheres, are you really accepting those individuals? Or are you just forcing them to limit themselves to socially accepted, sterilized personalities? I think the answer is clear that if you really are a heterogeneous, pluralistic society you would allow for individual expression – only limiting it when it impedes on another’s expression or safety.
We live in a country where there was a successful movement to allow men and women in the armed forces to be open about their sexuality; this week there are people celebrating that the U.S. Army has its first homosexual General. We tolerate and in some ways even support transgender and homosexual parades with the most outrageous displays because we believe it is a part of their right to live as they wish and express their sexuality. Wear a Boston Red Sox jersey and no cop in New York will give you a ticket and no one will question your right to support any team you want. Cut your hair in outrageous fashion, wear clothes how you want, and tattoo your body wherever and however you please, but please do not wear your religion on your shoulder, head, or around your neck. That seems funny doesn’t it? To Turban or not is a not a debate that should be alive today. No one wearing a turban should feel compelled to change. The debate should not exist because it should be a settled debate, in this country at the very least, that we accept individuals entirely – not with their religion relegated as a private embarrassment.
2. Violence in Religion – I don’t think there is anyone who should claim that their religion does not sanction violence. Any follower of a religion which believes in justice or self-defense will find permissible violence in their faith (and those who do not have a religion find permissible violence in their justice systems). The problem really is with religions that accept violence to a greater degree and allow it to be committed outside causes of justice and defense. When violence becomes an accepted tool for submission and conversion or when a religion preaches beliefs that strongly propagate an expanded role for violence, the religion can be said to be a violent religion.
That is a general point I think everyone should remember. Now a lot of the name-calling and bad-mouthing that goes around confuses me because I feel there are a number of underlying questions that are not yet answered. I hope someone can help me with these: How much do the people doing the arguing really not about the other religion and its practitioners? So many YouTube videos and articles are quotes to support claims, but are YouTube and articles of any kind (academic or journalistic) accurate and/or complete representations of the truth? There is a whole discussion about how objective or truthful media is in that previous question. What is an extremist? Is there a percentile definition of “fringe group” or “extremist”? Can a religion be judged by incidental actions of its practitioners? If yes, any practitioners, some practitioners, loyal practitioners, official members? What is more valuable in judging a faith – the direct reading of scripture or the currently accepted interpretation of the scripture? I feel that anyone who is going to on about which religion is peace loving and which is not should first squarely address these questions. It would really clear the air and allow for real conversation as opposed to the mud-slinging that originates from false-pride, hatred, and ignorance.
Well, now there’s some food for thought. If you want to read about outward expression of religion in India, check out a blog I wrote a while back: Mumbai’s Religiously Oppressive School Uniforms.