I consider myself a connoisseur of stupid religions. In my youth I was a searcher, a seeker, and I passed through the needle's eye of salvation in several denominations. When I was 6, I was actually baptized in the Mormon Church. I remember it well. I was baptized in a blue-tiled hot tub of sorts in the Mormon temple. Apparently, Latter Day Saints walk the streets of glory reeking of chlorine.
Now my name is archived in the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City for all time, which should put me in solid with Elohim, the Mormon the God of the Universe (not to be confused with He-Man).
Mormonism is a religion that tests its believers' ability to keep a straight face. Joseph Smith, an itinerant treasure-hunter armed with a magic "seer stone," found the golden Plates of Lehi in upstate New York. The plates supposedly told the tale of a lost tribe of Israelites who came to the American continent, encountered a resurrected Jesus Christ, formed a great civilization and then slaughtered themselves in an apocalyptic battle in 421 A.D., at Hill Cumorah, near Palmyra, N.Y., in a dispute over caffeine.
I was also baptized, catechized and traumatized in the Catholic Church. Catholicism after Vatican II lost much of its witchy booga-booga--no Meat on Friday, exorcism--but there's still plenty of weirdness to go around. Transubstantiation of the Host, for instance, really puts me off my lunch.
Hinduism? Love it. Very pretty. Too much homework.
In Burma, among Buddhism's mountainous golden stuphas and gilded reclining Buddhas as long as a football field, play the nats, folkloric fairies who inhabit the ether between the material and spiritual world. And when I say fairies, I'm not just whistling Dixie. The nats are gay--and not just gay, but raving bathhouse slatterns and around whom the chrome on bumper hitches is not safe. Think leprechauns in a production of La Cage aux Folles.
I've read the Egyptian Book of the Dead--actually it was Egyptian Book on Tape of the Dead. And I've quite enjoyed Hakim Bey's shamanistic babble in Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism, the seminal text of a generation of X'ed-out blissmongers and rave rugrats. A sample:
"Avatars of chaos act as spies, saboteurs, criminals of amour fou, neither selfless nor selfish, accessible as children, mannered as barbarians, chafed with obsessions, unemployed, sensually deranged, wolfangels, mirrors for contemplation, eyes like flowers, pirates of all signs & meanings."
The point is fairly made: Islam is not a stupid religion.
Islam is the stripped-down show plane of the Abrahamic faiths. The Big Guy--that is, Allah--is all seeing, all knowing, all powerful, and all alone--no ontologically hamstrung concepts like a Trinity, a Son of God incarnated, virgin birth, or blood atonement on the cross (a concept that was so totally plagiarized from the Greeks).
Theological arguments are pointless--I believe my coffee maker is the Supreme Being; prove me wrong--so let's move on to Al-Shahadah, the first tenet of Islam, the profession of faith: "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet." Every major religion I can think of has one of these secret decoder ring shiboleths. In Christianity it's in John 3:16--the only Bible verse millions of football fans have committed to memory. Encompassed in Al-Shadahah is a solemn belief in general resurrection, the final day of judgment, in all the prophets of God--including Jesus--and total submission to the preordained will of Allah, be it good or bad.
And there you have it. Islam is Calvinism Lite.
The second tenet of Islam is Al-Salah, which means "prayer." Good Muslims rise with the call of the muezzin and live their lives to the pentameter of daily prayer. Stand on a balcony above the medina in the holy city of Fez, Morocco, before dawn, its minarets rising out of the dreamy blue cedar smoke, and hear these passionate and lovely quarter-scale melodies vine together into a tremulous, delicate devotion. If that doesn't fill you with awe and wonder, you haven't got a red blood cell to your name.
Good Muslims walk with God. It doesn't really matter if there is or isn't a God--in fact, let's stipulate there's not. Islam reminds its adherents to stay acquainted with their better angels, to be wary of pride, to keep a vigil over baser instincts.
These are habits of mind that the most jeering atheist can respect, and ones we would wish upon the most sanctimonious evangelicals, like North Carolina's own, spiritually uncredentialed Franklin Graham, who has called Islam an "evil" religion. "It wasn't Methodists flying into those buildings. It wasn't Lutherans," the uncannily narrow Graham told NBC News last year. "It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith."
And the Crusades were all a big misunderstanding.
Of the remaining tenets of Islam--Al-Siyam (fasting at Ramadan), Al-Zakat (almsgiving) and Al-Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca)--the one that stays with me is almsgiving. Charity to the poor is not something Muslims do for their tax returns. An entire street economy is based on it. Westerners seem repulsed by begging when they should look upon it as an opportunity. Stick five bucks worth of Turkish lira, or Indonesian rupiah, or whatever, in your pocket when you leave your luxury hotel. Give it away. It's fun.
Why is Islam growing all over the world? Islam is a religion of and for the poor, and poverty is the West's greatest export.
I'm not a Muslim. I'm not even sure I believe in God. But I've never met a Muslim who wasn't hospitable, wry, thoughtful, with his or her eyes on a more distant horizon of salvation and atonement. The despicable caricature of Islam being marketed by the pitchfork-wielding yo-yos of the American media--the host of The O'Reilly Factor ought to be dragged before The Hague--is utterly inconsonant with the reality of Islam of the ground. Sure, there are crazy imams, war-mongering madrasahs, and teenage Jihaddi, but the Arab world--indeed, the whole of the Third World--has more than sufficient cause to hate us.
I have a theory. Far from being the theological match that ignites a religious war, Islam is, I believe, a tempering influence that keeps the besieged millions around the world from exploding in post-colonial rage. We should cherish Islam. We need Islam.
How intolerant are we? We can't even require incoming college freshmen at UNC to read the Koran, which is only the most sensible and modest effort to help 18-year-olds grasp the nature of those who might object to America's swaggering hegemony. Are we afraid of seeding the class of 2006 with Bubba bin Ladens?
The Koran is, like the Bible, rife with obsolete cultural norms and social mores, some of which are anathema to our current values of gender equality and secular justice. But it was written more than a millennium ago. Go back and read letters you wrote in college and see if they too don't sound crazy.
The true enemy is people's belief in their own divinely ratified rectitude. God says I'm right and you're wrong. Look here, it says so right here in my book.
Fundamentalism of any stripe--Southern Baptist, Islamic, free-market--plays havoc with our understanding of the shifting dynamism of human experience. The world is written in calculus; fundamentalism is a bludgeoning arithmetic of ignorance.
Columnist Dan Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org