Category Archives: Religion

Podcast #18: The Truth about Islam


Based on the 14 years of experience that I have working with Muslim students on campus, I have come to see Islam as a faith like any other. It’s sad and unjust that Americans are conditioned to respond to it as something utterly different. Hijab, in particular, is profoundly misunderstood.

Please don’t pull my Jewish history out of your Mormon hat, Joseph Smith!

Jewish History Books labeled as Mormon History Books

I recently conducted a two-part interview with my ex-Mormon friend and his wife; you can listen to it in Podcasts 05 and 06. I tried to maintain a scientific and professional distance from the topic in order to be able to evaluate it objectively as an anthropologist.

I stated in the inaugural podcast that I am uncomfortable with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, particularly because it is such a modern religion. I also made clear the fact that I recognize this bias and am actively trying to overcome it. While I find their doctrine to be ridiculous, that is not unique to them. Most religions are ridiculous when their scriptures are taken literally.

Perhaps one day I’ll have an opportunity to interview a practicing Mormon, and I invite that. I want to respect the faith, but please don’t expect me to believe it. In the meantime, the people that I have access to are ex-Mormon and granted, they have their own particular view of things.

I found my interview with Andrew to be extremely enlightening. If you listen to the episodes, you’ll see that I was trying to put my finger on just what it is that disturbs me, but I was fairly unsuccessful. That’s because it took a day or two to settle into my consciousness: The Mormons f*** with my people.

What do I mean? I’m saying that as a Jew, I cannot accept their version of events. It’s one thing for them to claim a history that is markedly different from mine, but it’s quite another when their history rewrites mine. I can think of no other faith whose doctrine modifies the beliefs of another in such a way. They claim, for example, that Native Americans are descended from the ancient Hebrews, who rafted to the New World sometime before the episode at the Tower of Babel – and that was just the first of several Jewish migrations. With one prophetic vision they disrespect the cultural traditions of two peoples – now that’s efficient!

Not content to mess with history alone, the Mormons also make a practice of baptizing Jews after our deaths.  They take the editor’s pen to the future as surely as the past. And it’s not just the Jews, it’s all non-Mormons. That’s why they have the best genealogy records on the web.

Why couldn’t the Mormons keep their history to themselves like everyone else? No, they even had to drag Jesus into it. Poor, uninformed Christians. Don’t they know they’re missing half the story? Sure, their savior returned from the dead, but not to them! They must feel a little left out. Because Jesus, according to Mormon scriptures, was teleported to the New World after his resurrection, where he ministered to the descendants of the Jews, who apparently had forgotten they were Jewish. Then what happened? It slipped their minds that they had become Christians. Oops! Silly Jewish Christian Indians!

Is it just me, or is this not all a little bit insulting? Honestly, that’s the nicest thing I can think of to say about it.

if you believe in the flu shot, then you believe in evolution

Bill Nye

Bill Nye: Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children

“Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology. It’s very much analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates.  You’re just not going to get the right answer. . . And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it.  Because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.” – Bill Nye

Thank you, Bill Nye, for speaking truth to ignorance. I wonder if the folks who believe in creationism typically accept the will of God and allow themselves to die when they get sick? No, I’m betting that the majority of people who call themselves Christians go ahead and get their yearly flu shots. They believe in the efficacy of the vaccine with the same blind faith that causes them to reject the science that produced it in the first place. Irony, party of several million?

The flu vaccine would not exist if scientists did not have a firm grasp on the facts of evolution. It is updated yearly to keep up with the evolution of the virus, which changes so much and so quickly that the previous year’s vaccine is no longer effective.  How do these changes occur? You might think that the answer is mutation, but that’s only a small part of the process.  Mutations are random, but the virus keeps growing more drug-resistant. Clearly there’s something else going on here.

When you get a flu shot, your body gains the ability to produce antibodies to the flu virus; if you are exposed to it afterwards, your body fights it off.  The antibodies kill most, but not all of the virus particles. Some virions have genetic variations that allow them to survive the onslaught of your antibodies. They aren’t any better or stronger than the others; it’s just genetic randomness.

Eventually these survivor virions will be passed onto someone else whose body will perform the same process, helping to weed the virus population down to only those virions that are completely resistant to the vaccine. The following year when their descendants return, they will be immune to it. They will be genetically different from the ancestor virus. They will have evolved from a previous state.

This is evolution, plain and simple. Science has proved it, and you already believe in it. If viruses evolve – and clearly they do – then evolution happens, right? You can choose to believe in science when it works for you and dismiss it when it doesn’t, but don’t expect the rest of us to think that you’re making any sense. Not everyone can handle that kind of cognitive dissonance.

Teaching your kids that evolution is wrong is like teaching them that the world is flat. It’s incorrect, and it does them a disservice. Teaching your kids that creationism stands on equal footing with science cannot be called “educating” them. Is it your goal to inform them, or to keep them in ignorance? Would you like them to invent a cure for your eventual Alzheimer’s, or would you prefer them to simply pray it away?

I’m not knocking your faith; that has its place. Just don’t let it get in the way of your intellect.

On “On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God”

Patrick Chappatte, Int’l. Herald Tribune

Sam Harris makes a lot of the same points about Mormonism that I do, but in terms of Islam, I think he’s oversimplifying matters. He says liberals who claim that “it is our policies, rather than our freedoms” that Muslims hate are overlooking the fact that “millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.” Does he really think that this is the only reason people are angry? C’mon, Sam. You’re committing an act of anthropological ignorance.  How about some context, for crying out loud?

We have Richard Engel’s fantastic reporting on MSNBC to thank for promoting understanding over judgement. He has given us the relevant cultural information: Muslims in the Middle East do not enjoy the rights of free speech that Americans do. Simply put, if a statement makes it into the media, it must have been sanctioned by the government – or it would have been censored. To this way of thinking, if a film makes it onto YouTube, the American government must have approved it – or they would have censored it. An offensive film about Islam is therefore a piece of federally sponsored propaganda against Muslims, and an implied threat to their safety. The Big Bad American Bully is at it again, adding insult to injury.

Don’t feel bad, Sam. They don’t understand you any better than you understand them.

Let’s Undo the Time Warp Again

Still from The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It’s hard to believe what’s going on in America.  It’s like the second half of the 20th century never happened.  Did I miss the episode where the plot got shifted to an alternate timeline? I hate it when they fuck with the timeline.

Seriously. I thought that legalized meant settled, as in no longer open for debate.  I thought I could count on an America where abortion would always be safe and women would remain in charge of their own bodies.  I thought that access to and use of birth control would never again be seen as anything other than sensible, especially in light of the now-legal alternative.

I thought that history equaled lessons learned, as in we’ll never make that mistake again.  I thought that after the Great Depression, I could grow old feeling safe in the knowledge that I won’t have to sell apples in the street if I live past seventy – or blood if I lose my job.  I thought that after the Civil Rights  and anti-war movements of the sixties and seventies, after the Children’s March and Kent State, police officers would never again attack peaceful American citizens exercising their legal right to assemble.

I thought that science and rationality had won the battle with magical thinking, as in we don’t believe in ridiculous crap anymore.  I thought that since antibiotics were an accepted thing, so was evolution, since they’re based on exactly the same principles.  I thought that since the melting of polar and alpine ice and the flooding of low-lying lands is patently obvious to anyone looking, let alone living there, people would accept the fact that the climate is changing.  I thought it was pretty clear that there isn’t a giant white man living in the sky somewhere, making all of this happen.

Clearly I was wrong. I encounter ignorance and arrogance on a daily basis, in the news and among my students. Ignorance of history and arrogance of belief.  I’d like to believe that the sequence of history shows a straight line moving from brutality and stupidity toward kindness and enlightenment, but I can’t.

It’s just a jump to the left. . . and then a step to the right.

Mormon Mitt

Joseph Smith Translate the Book of Mormon by Looking into his Hat

Joseph Smith Translates the Book of Mormon by Looking into his Hat

I know I’m going to be out of line here, especially for an anthropologist, but why is talking about the fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon off limits? I have a problem with this.

First of all, there’s the tithing thing. I’m not comfortable with the idea that 10% of the President’s income would wind up in the hands of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That’s the people’s money. That’s my money. I’d sooner see him spend it on another private jet than have him hand it over to a church. Any church. Something feels vaguely unconstitutional about it.

Second, anyone who believes in the literal truth of any religion is  intellectually challenged in a manner that should disqualify him from seeking higher office.  I’m sorry,  but it has to be said: The miraculous foundations of every deist faith are patently ridiculous.  This is easily explained by the fact that these things date to a time before the advent of science and technology, when humans beings were still in the intellectual Dark Ages.  First they thought that the sun was pulled across the sky by an immortal charioteer; later, they were certain that a man had parted a river to allow his people to escape their captors.  Still later, a virgin gave birth to the child of God, who then went on to turn water into wine.

Yeah, sure.  Tell me another one.  That’s what passed for knowledge in those days, before the scientific revolution.  Before anyone was aware of the facts of reproduction, at least as far as the ovum was concerned.  Back when people believed in alchemy and were busily trying to turn lead into gold.  Back when being left-handed or epileptic was the work of the Devil, for crying out loud!

The Mormons are a special case because their faith dates to the 19th century, long after our intellectual awakening; they have no excuse for their ignorance.  In the 1820s, an established con artist claimed to have received a series of revelations including the “fact” that Jesus Christ traveled to the New World after his resurrection, where he ministered to the Native Americans — who, by the way, were a lost tribe of the Jews who migrated there several hundred years before the birth of Christ.  Never mind the fact that people have been present on this continent for a minimum of 10,000 years.  And while the Old and New Testaments at least contain elements of history and records of real places, the Book of Mormon has a cast of characters acting in locales that do not actually exist.  Joseph Smith wasn’t big on fact-checking the crap that came out of his hat.

It’s one thing to be a religious literalist, but it’s another thing entirely to base your politics on it.  Politics cannot be faith-based; they must be reality-based. This does, of course, disqualify the entire Republican field at the moment. Mr. Romney, however, has the special distinction of membership in a Church that baptizes Holocaust victims and tells its people that they can themselves become gods.  God himself, by the way, is an alien man from another planet.

As an anthropologist, I want to say that all religions are valid, legitimate and deserving of respect, but they do not represent a reality on which everyone can agree.  They are composed of metaphors, allegories, histories, and outright fictions intended to bind a people together in a specific time and place, and they are not applicable outside of their own particular temporal, cultural, and geographic boundaries.  They are best understood as products of and exclusive to the cultures that create them. They have no place in the politics of a modern, multicultural nation.  You might as well go put your face in a hat.