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.
A common myth about American history holds that the first British colonists came to North America for freedom of religion. As it's often the case, myth is much prettier than reality. It is true that the early Puritans very much resented being persecuted by other Protestants back in England, but this didn't mean they had anything against persecuting others. What happened to American Indian religions after all the tribes had been conquered by the United States serves as a perfect example of this. Technically speaking, Congress never passed a federal law prohibiting the practice of Native ceremonies. This, however, didn't stop generations of secretaries of the Interior working in conjunction with other branches of the government from waging war against traditional Native beliefs. Viewing themselves as parents to senseless children, they honestly believed that criminalizing American Indian traditions was in the Natives' best interest. Sending offenders to jail was--in their minds--a charitable act of love (incidentally, this is a great reminder that when people want to do something that goes against your will "for your own good" it's time to start running for your life).
Nobody likes ending up in front of judge and jury being charged with serious crimes. This individual, however, handled it like a pro, and the fact that he was already a corpse probably helped. He also happened to be the pope (or at least, he was when he still had a pulse). How did Pope Formosus up as a dead body on trial? The year was 897 CE, and these were the days when powerful rival families battled each other to have one of their own elected as pope. Apparently, these rivalries were so intense that they didn't end with death. So, when a certain Stephen VI became the new pope, he promptly had the body of his predecessor dug up and put on trial at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. After propping Formosus in a chair, Stephen read the charges against him: perjury, serving as bishop while a layman, and trying to usurp the papacy. Formosus was found guilty, and Stephen VI had the corpse stripped of his papal clothes, three fingers he had used for blessings cut off, and declared all his acts invalid. As an added insult, the body was buried in a cemetery for foreigners.
A working theory I have that monotheistic religions are responsible for the bloodiest wars in history runs into a stumbling block here, since Confucian/Taoist/Buddhist China is home to a religious war that caused the death of over 20 million people. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), in fact, is hands-down one of the goriest conflicts in modern history. 20 million dead are a bit too much to dismiss simply as a minor exception to the rule, so it seems that I may have to revise my theory. The lead star of this story is a certain Hong Xiuquan. Hong was told he was God's second son, and Jesus's younger brother and he was able to gather a huge following of converts called the "God Worshippers." Hong and his not-so-merry band of pranksters began their journey by waging a crusade to purge any trace of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism from Chinese society. And before long they graduated to armed insurrection against the government that had tried to stop them. Hong & co. managed to score several impressing military victories, conquering good chunks of southern China, and establishing a new state called the "Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace" with capital in Nanjing. In the best tradition of religious weirdness, the creation of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace heralded a bloody civil war with a body count that would make most video gamers blush. With the same zeal that characterizes most monotheists who like to mix religion and politics, Hong demanded total obedience to all his moral and religious reforms. Not only did his troops massacre followers of other religions, but they also placed hits on their own if their loyalty was questioned.
It's a fairly safe bet to assume that if you are looking for a paradise of free love and sexual indulgence, Iran may not be the first country that comes to mind. Ever since the 1979 Revolution ushered rabid fundamentalists to power, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not exactly been known for an enlightened attitude about sex. Any country that has a morality police whose tasks include arresting women whose coats are too short or whose head scarves are not tight enough doesn't sound like the right place if you are looking for a good time. The Iranian legal code, after all, states that unmarried couples having sex or simply dating and hanging out together can be arrested and flogged. But horrendously strict rules go hand-in-hand with the human habit of finding creative ways to bypass them. Enters the legal institution of sigheh. A man and a woman can marry with the blessing of a cleric. Nothing strange so far, except that these are marriages that come with an expiration date. The couple, in fact, can and will write down the expected length of their marriage--which can range anywhere from a few minutes to 99 years--and how much money should go to the woman as "dowry." Men are also free to enter as many temporary marriages as they want, whereas women can only enter one at a time. In the same ultra-conservative nation where heavy sexual repression is touted as a virtue by Islamic fundamentalists, the very same religious authorities call "temporary marriage" what everyone else would call prostitution. Why even bother being such a hard ass about sex and maintaining that prostitution is a terrible sin if then you turn around and allow it under a different name?
Chandra Mohan Jain did not follow any organized religion, nor did he want to create a new one. In the course of his life he ended up using more aliases than Jason Bourne (among the most long lasting ones were Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Osho). From the start, Osho was born with a mischievous streak to him. The man just loved pushing people's buttons. His teaching career as a philosophy university professor was cut short since his lectures attracted plenty of students but horrified administrators who believed he was a threat to religion and morality. Osho, however, never stopped teaching. He just changed setting. Freed from the constraints of institutions, he began instructing disciples in his own brand of rebellious spirituality. His lectures would use the scriptures of world religions as well as the writings of philosophers like Nietzsche and Heraclitus as starting points that Osho could use to put on a show. Half stand up comedian and half spiritual master, Osho delighted in cracking people up and trying to enlighten them at the same time. With smug satisfaction, he offended sensibility by attacking organized religion at any chance he had while promoting a very relaxed attitude about sex. The style of meditation that he taught was similarly freer and wilder than anything anybody had seen. In the 1980s, after an attempted assassination by an outraged Hindu fundamentalist and increased hostility by the Indian government, Osho relocated to the United States. And this is where things got really weird. His followers bought an insanely vast amount of land, and promptly began building a new city in the midst of Oregon. Osho, in the meantime, had the less than spectacular idea to go into an extended period of complete silence and let his secretary, the highly disturbing Ma Anand Sheela run his affairs. Many scandals and a bioterrorist attack later (set up by Sheela against local opponents of Osho's community), Osho decided that maybe giving Sheela so much power had not been his best plan yet. So, Sheela was promptly kicked out of the "religion" that was not an "organized" religion.
Every so often throughout the history of Judaism somebody will steal the spotlight by claiming to be the redeemer that Jewish people have been waiting for. Typically, he gains scores of followers but before long he also meets an early, bloody death. In the course of many centuries, dozens of people have rushed with masochistic enthusiasm to fill the shoes of the expected Messiah. Sabbatai Zevi was a Kabbalah enthusiast who grew up in the area of modern day Turkey under the shadow of the Ottoman Empire. After battling some serious manic-depressive tendencies, Sabbatai promptly stepped up to the messianic plate ready to claim the title. If proclaiming he was the Messiah wasn't radical enough, Sabbatai also scandalized many fellow Jews by breaking traditional customs by eating non-kosher food and speaking the forbidden name of God. He also took as a wife a beautiful former hooker who in infancy had survived the massacre of Jews in Poland, and who believed she was destined to marry the Messiah. According to his followers (which at the beginning weren't that many), these violations were signs that the old laws no longer applied now that the Messiah had arrived. Sabbatai managed to gain thousands of followers rather quickly from both Europe as well as from the Ottoman Empire. This kind of bravado, however, didn't sit well with the Ottomans. The grand vizier promptly had him arrested. And this is where Sabbatai found out that being the Messiah was not as fun as advertised. The grand vizier told him that the only way he would be freed would be by performing a miracle. First he would be stripped naked, and then the court archers would use him as a target. If his messianic powers could deflect the arrows, then he would be free to go. Faced with the archers, Sabbatai suddenly remembered that his passion for martyrdom had run out, and that he had actually always wanted to convert to Islam.
Few individuals have left a mark on human history as deep as Genghis Khan. Here is a guy who single-handedly created the biggest empire the world had ever seen. It has been estimated that his armies may have massacred somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million people. From Russia to Iran, from the edges of Western Europe to China, his name used to evoke a very justified, overwhelming fear. His Mongolian hordes made it their profession to level one civilization after another. Anyone who dared to stand against them regularly met the same, predictable, sorry end. In some places, such as the area of modern day Iran, the population wouldn't return to its pre-Genghis Khan-showed-up-in-the-neighborhood size for several hundred years. But alongside with drowning Eurasia in blood, he also promoted some of the most advanced religious policies anyone could expect in the 1200s--or at any other time for that matter--and, incidentally planted trees wherever he went, thereby removing several million tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Unlike many other world conquerors, he didn't even bother claiming some divine right for taking other peoples' lands. But more importantly, unlike what his contemporaries were doing throughout Western Europe and much of the Middle East, Genghis Khan gave full freedom of religion to all people within the lands over which he ruled. Despite being an adept of his tribe's brand of shamanism--which was the staple of the Mongols' ceremonial life at that time--he was very interested in learning anything useful from other religions. So in this spirit, he encouraged religious syncretism and sponsored many debates between the representatives of different spiritual traditions. Taoists, Buddhist monks, Confucian scholars, Christian missionaries and Muslim traders were regularly invited to exchange ideas in his presence. The same man who had killed a greedy governor by pouring molten gold down his throat was also responsible for a truly enlightened policy of religious toleration. As history would have it, one of the first paladins of freedom and individual rights also happened to be a mass murderer.