We Need to Talk About Religion 

A biblical pandemic stalks the earth and swarms of locusts are working their way through parts of Africa and Asia. Perhaps now is the time to pray and take comfort in religion. Perhaps. When religion is used in this way, I have no complaints, each person can decide to believe or not believe, to pray or to meditate. But if what we saw yesterday doesn’t make your blood boil you are not paying attention. The sheer injustice of the special treatment the religious in Israel get is an outrage in and of itself. On the one hand we have a surfer out to sea by himself being chased down by an army helicopter because he is breaking the rules of the lockdown because he might contaminate, er… the fish…? On the other hand, the authorities allowed a mass funeral in Ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak, where everyone packed close together in the very community where the disease is spreading like wildfire.

Here we see the danger in calling for the Messiah and praying for the end of the world. That is a first point of divergence. I, and many with me, do not think the end of the world is a good thing. For the people who do think it to be a good thing, why should they care about human lives or the fate of the planet? Why should they care about people being wiped out in a pandemic? Belief in prophecy and paradise is a dangerous thing.

Some religious organizations do actual good things. In Sweden where I come from the Swedish Church is famous for helping refugees for example. Reform Jews have worked against injustice, like the Rabbis for human rights in Israel or in the civil rights movement in the US. Sometimes religious leaders also do the right thing. Pope Francis has made the Catholic church a vehicle for the fight against climate breakdown and the world would be worse off without his efforts. Some of the religious texts also have beneficial nuggets of wisdom for your personal morality. Take Rabbi Hillel’s “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” that made its way into the New Testament as Jesus “Golden Rule”. Personally, I love Yom Kippur, as a day of reflection and regret where life stops dead. It also gives us the unique benefit at looking at the utopia of a city without cars. None of this is bad, and if these things were the beginning and the end of religion, I would have no problem with it.

However, all of this is contingent on power. When given earthly power, religion is likely to become extremely dangerous. When their ideas don’t have to be checked against the simplest of ethics, like “what is good for people” and instead looks for guidelines in ancient texts or worse, through a direct communication between the religious leaders and the divine, we know trouble is on the way. Thankfully, during the enlightenment, we started moving away from superstition and into a world more governed by facts than the authority of religious leaders. This is what gave us technology and the modern world. Although many of us would like to see technology used more wisely, most of us would not like to go back. It is in this only in this era, in many parts of the western world, where religion has been pushed back from positions of power, that we see the religious doing some good. They can now inhabit the world of charity, psychological comfort and for existential ponderings. Wonderful! That is their place.

To get to this place you need to take your religion with a dose of common sense. Let’s take it from the deity’s point of view. Let’s say the deity actually rules the universe. I don’t think so but let’s say this is true. They rule the trillions of stars in the universe. They care about one species on one planet, and they even care about what they get up to. Would they care about their fashion choices? About what they eat? Who they love? No. This makes no sense. The only thing the master of the universe could possibly care about in terms of morality is that people are nice to each other and that they take some care of the planet they inhabit. Pretty much “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”. This should be the long and the short of it.

In far too many places religion is either authoritarian or extortionate. In Israel it is both. Sure, most of us don’t have the morality police like in Iran, genocide like in the Caliphate of the Islamic State and the Jewish part of the country is spared the “honor killings” of the wider Middle East. We are spared the crusades, witch burning or selling of indulgences like in the churches of old in Europe. We thankfully don’t have punishments for imaginary crimes like blasphemy. Yet. Nonetheless, most of the religious activity in Israel is known for the same kinds of extortion and authoritarianism that plagues our neighboring countries. The unfortunate people who live in these communities are stuck with people telling them how to dress, what to eat, who to love and who they can walk away from, even punishing those who don’t stick to their rules. They don’t even allow their children a relevant education, so they will stay ignorant and not leave that stifling world and join us in the modern world. Then they want to force their dogmas onto the rest of us.

A good, if small scale, example of extortion is the Kashrut. I have met food salesmen who swear that the rabbi who comes to check on his production never actually checks his production. The rabbis only interest is in the cheque he receives for “working”, which he asks for in advance. This is a practice worthy of gangsters. If they want to decide who gets a Kosher certificate and who doesn’t they should be obliged to do this work for free. They want there to be Kosher certificates so they should provide this service. Simple.

Extortion of a far grander scale is the occupation. The occupation pains and fascinates me. It is so obvious that it only exists because the state has been hoodwinked into financing the religious and their projects. Hands up who thinks that they would be able to create a racist pseudo state on the West Bank without the state building their Arab-free roads and pay for their protection. No? No one? If they want this weird system, they should pay for it. Similarly, if they want to not work, not serve in the army, pray all day and having more kids than they can take care of that’s fine, do that!  Why the rest of society should be paying them for this pleasure boggles the mind.

Which brings us to authoritarianism. Religious authoritarianism has been with us since Moses supposedly came down from a mountain and claimed a direct communication with the Lord. It’s not complicated. The religious want us to conform to their version of what is good under the threat of punishment. We have many places in the world where religion is forced upon people from the government, Iran and Saudi Arabia are two very unfortunate examples, and they all have one thing in common: most people don’t want to live there. It’s just completely at odds with everything civilization has achieved during the past few centuries. The UN declaration of Human rights beats the Ten Commandments any day of the week. Free speech, right to assembly, equality of the sexes, I could go on. I’m sorry but the world has moved on from Moses’ idea that rule number one has to do with what deity you must worship.

The worst part is that when you have religious political parties and they join the government in coalition. Then they get ministries far from their area of expertise. What is their expertise again? Bronze age texts. That’s it. Let’s be clear. Bronze age texts can be important for a historian, but bronze age texts do not help us in the modern world. Knowing what it says in them should not help you get closer to power. In our recent predicament, the corona crisis, the religious have proved to be worse than useless. Our health minister is against work being done on shabbat to fight the illness and find a vaccine. The shuls and synagogues were open more than a week after regular schools were closed and some religious leaders are calling for public prayer even after the rest of the country has been shut down. With the predictable results in many, many infected religious people.

I know this is low hanging fruit in Israel but let’s face it: the second biggest party in the Knesset, Blue and White, is formed because of anti-religion. This is a shame; I wish the opposition would be focused on peace and a Green New Deal rather its main issues being Binyamin Netanyahu’s personality and hatred of religion. But for the people who suffer under religious oppression, it is not a side issue. For the people who must marry someone they do not love, to not be able to leave an abusive husband because of the Get, or who are forced to obey some rabbi who may not have their best interests at heart. All this is heartbreaking and infuriating. In this day and age, no one should have to endure it.

Still, paying the extortion money to the religious has a long history in Israel. Ben Gurion made this deal with the ultra-orthodox, where they supported the state in return for taking control of things like marriage and burials. So honestly if the religious would go along with either decarbonizing Israel or ending the occupation, that would be worth the extortion money. Give them all they want in that case, I’m all for it.

As it is today, we get nothing in return, therefore we owe them nothing.

About the Author
Toby Gisle is 42 years old, and a trained circus performer who now works as an English teacher in Tel Aviv. Although he grew up in London, he is originally from Sweden. His writings have appeared in a few different publications in Sweden.
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