Monday, September 17, 2012

Seeing vs. Believing

Dave and I watched a documentary yesterday afternoon called "Islam: The Untold Story." Unlike the recent crude hatchet-job "The Innocence of Muslims," which led to all the unrest across the Islamic world, "Islam: The Untold Story" tries to look at the origins of Islam from a historical, scholarly perspective. Where was Mohammed really from? Did Islam really inspire the expansion of Arab influence throughout the Middle East?

It was an interesting movie, but it made its creators nervous enough that they cancelled a planned screening in London -- and this was just before all hell broke loose in Libya.

In Western culture, it makes sense to question. We grow out of a tradition of inquiry and scholarship, reason and evidence. After all, during and after the Renaissance, reason diminished the influence of many of our own religious institutions. How many documentaries have been made questioning the historical authenticity of the Bible, of Christ's life? Countless.

In much of the Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world, though, you just don't ask. The belief is that Islam comes straight from God in the words of the Koran, and that's all there is to it. You either believe or you don't. Asking questions merely muddies the teachings with human perspectives and frailties. (It's not unlike the approach of Christian fundamentalists, who fervently believe in Biblical literalism and don't like to see the Bible challenged.)

Sometimes I think religion just messes up the world -- at least, religion of the "I'm-right-and-you're-wrong" variety, which sadly seems to be growing in influence. I wish we could all relax our grip on our tightly held beliefs just long enough to acknowledge that others exist with other, equally valid beliefs. Things get dangerous when people get so consumed by their ideas and beliefs that they lose sight of each other, of humanity. The ideas become more important than the people they serve.

This documentary was interesting because it illustrated so beautifully the clash in two approaches to religion -- a scholarly, secular approach of reason and inquiry, and the faith-based belief that supersedes reason. In this case, the secular approach ultimately resolved nothing, because aside from the religious texts, there are no written records to shed light on the origins of Islam. And besides, does that secular history even matter? Isn't what people believe really the issue that shapes the world today?

I didn't object to the movie at all -- not in the way I objected to "The Innocence of Muslims," which is so clearly a trashy piece of anti-Muslim propaganda. "Islam: The Untold Story" at least tries to be respectful, and personally, I find inquiry interesting. But ultimately I don't think it achieved much. I believe in reason and scholarship, but so far, it can't answer all of humanity's questions -- which is what believers have been saying all along.

(Photo: Tooting Bec, last week.)


  1. I think that religion is an idea whose time has passed. But that's just me.

  2. That whole uproar in the Islamic world is insanity. I grow more and more opposed to religion -- certainly the fundamentalist sort but now even the more moderate kind, as long as it's twinned to violence and/or certitude.

  3. Steven! This is a brilliant post! I must share it on FB- hope that you do not mind- if you do I will delete it- So well put- clear, sans fire and judgement. Thank you for this clear headed un-rant. LOVE!

  4. What an eloquent and well written post.

    I agree. I think, that although society NEEDS religion, to keep them from anarchy, most of the time it does more bad than good. :/

    I also like how you say it is ok to question and inquire. It is so important not to just believe everything you hear or read.

    I consider myself more spiritual than religious, nor do I subscribe to any one religion. I think there is value in all and bad in all.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

  5. Ms Moon: I'm not particularly religious, at least in any theistic sense, but I can see how some people might get something from it. The misuse of religion as a tool to differentiate and discriminate and hate is what gets me.

    Elizabeth: It IS insanity! And yes, the certitude is what bothers me too. I grew up believing that others had different religions and they were all equally valid. I'm not sure why so many people can't live with that.

    Linda Sue: Thanks! But it's not THAT brilliant. I'm not even really sure what I was trying to say, except to plead for understanding! Sure, share away.

    Ms. M: Thanks. Value in all -- exactly! I'm not sure people would descend to anarchy without religion, but I think it gives an added dimension to some people's lives that they feel they need.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Steve. I think all fundamentalism in religion has become a bully in the way that it is practiced. There, how's that for a sweeping statement. I think spirituality is a much more nuanced and embracing concept than religion.

  7. I certainly struggle with religion. I grew up Southern Baptist & gave that up when the denomination was taken over by fundementalists. Now I'm Episcopalian - and practically a church lady! I'm in the choir and on the altar guild & a lay eucharistic visitor... And even so I often wonder what in the world I'm doing there & what do I really believe.

    Questioning really is a part of our culture - & I think that when you start accepting without questioning you're in great danger - because who the heck really actually KNOWS anything?