Religion is one of those big taboo topics that many people are terrified to touch: too afraid that others will question their religious loyalties and just as afraid to step on the minefield that is the overhyped sensitivity of some believers.
And this is precisely why it is so much fun to talk about it.
People, after all, live and die in the names of religious values, so the stakes of what we are playing with couldn't be any higher. And yet, few fields can make many human beings as unwilling to face the evidence as religion. It is exactly because these ideas are so central to their lives that they don't want anyone to plant doubts in their minds.
If this is you--if you are afraid of tackling contradictions, if you believe that without blind faith you would be prey to senselessness and desperation, if dealing with complexity sends you running for the reassuring arms of dogma--then do not read any further. What I am about to say will confuse you, anger you and ruin your digestion.
But if you feel like taking a weird, dangerous journey through world religions and running into some of the very odd characters populating them--if you have a taste for paradox and think that questioning authority should be an Olympic sport--then hop on board.
I had a hell of a lot of fun writing 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know: Religion [The Disinformation Company, $12.95] and conveying fifty of the most bizarre and unexpected stories about religion outside of my classroom. So below you'll find seven of them that best relate the experience of my book (in a Reader's Digest format).
You will discover that:
1. The institutions, we as a civilization, have considered "sacred" for thousands of years often are not considered that same way in organized religion, when powerful political forces or massive carnal desire enter the picture
2. Universal rights have been a sticky point for a number of religions because of what particular groups would benefit from them
3. Established religions, throughout history, have been a magnet for would-be messiahs, and an opportunity for those clever iconoclasts and tricksters to create their own new "religion" to challenge the old ones; and finally,
4. Any group calling for "Heavenly Peace on Earth" often has ended up killing millions of people in their fervor, and even stranger, the greatest conqueror in human history actually allowed religious tolerance in an truly unprecedented manner that, even today, we have not seen over most of our planet.
Religion is not an easy topic to discuss: it's one of those things in life that is truly more complicated than it looks, and often, is a very personal matter for a hell of a lot of people. So my goal here is, at a minimum, to try to make thinking about religion enjoyable, and something you would discuss with others, even if you expect a difference of opinion.