Ever since I witnessed the reaction of my then co-workers to the fatwa on Rushdie, I’ve been trying to understand religion. While I think I’ve come to understand quite a few aspects of religion, I have still great difficulty understanding the great tenacity with which religious people cling to tenets of their religion that appear arbitrary, irrational and contrary to facts. But of course, the same goes for people that, contrary to every evidence, want to believe that there is something to astrology, homeopathy or psychic powers.
My bias regarding religion, and somewhat more specifically Islam, was created in 1988. At the time I was working in a small factory as an operator. Half of the people on the factory floor were practicing Muslims from Turkey (they prayed five times a day, one of them had a function at his mosque). There was also a boy from Morocco, he didn’t pray, didn’t talk much either.
I was in my twenties and very interested in languages and cultural differences, and had been talking a lot with my Turkish co-workers. A result of this was that I did a course in Turkish and after some time got by reasonably well on beginners level. I did some reading on the history of Turkey. With regard to religion I was almost a blank slate (I knew my parents had had a Christian upbringing but I myself was not raised religiously and I thought of myself as agnostic). Even though I was an unbeliever, I had bought a bible (I thought of it as a historical document), and some time after learning to know my Turkish co-workers somewhat better I had bought a Koran as well. I tried (in vein) to learn a bit classical Arabic.
The Salmon Rushdie affair surprised me a lot. I didn’t understand what the problem was. The reaction of my Muslim co-workers surprised me even more. Even though Ayatollah Khomeini seemed to be of a different faith, they all accepted his judgement without hesitation and assured me repeatedly that they were willing to kill Rusdie the moment he would step through the door. None of them had read his book of course, nor did they really know anything about the book, except that it was blasphemous according to Khomeini. As a result of this I tried to talk about religion with them, but that didn’t help much. I discovered that they all had beliefs that to me seemed superstitions. For example, the man I talked with most, one day asked me to get out of his dreams. It turned out they all agreed that dreaming about someone meant that that someone was actively intruding. I tried to suggest that he had dreamed about me because we had interacted a bit more lately, but he would have none of that. They told me other stuff that was even harder to take seriously (I can’t recall the details anymore, things about ghosts and things like that). The thing that worried me was that they all saw real world repercussions as a result of those beliefs.
The supervisor on the work floor was a Christian, but he confessed that he hardly ever went to church. I have read that according to Islam unbelief really is the absolute worst, but Christianity acceptable somehow. Nevertheless, my Turkish co-workers judged the Christian supervisor as much worse than the (perhaps somewhat naive) unbeliever that I was then. So, the reverse of their written dogma. They blamed the supervisor because he was hardly practicing. Not taking one’s faith seriously was in their eyes worse than having no faith (I don’t know what they thought of other religions than the Abrahamic). By the way, I learned from this same supervisor (who had been in the factory longer than me), that when he would visit one of the Turkish co-workers at his home, all the women there had to move to the kitchen (even though those women normally went out to work, do shopping, etc.) Finally, I think that at the time I knew nothing about Saudi-Arabia or Wahhabiism.
I feel this was my first real introduction to religion. I found it somewhat disturbing. Later I learned a lot more about religion. I went to university, and took classes in Anthropology, including anthropological accounts of the religions of Japan and religion more generally. Later I read books that looked at religion from psychological or evolutionary perspectives. While I gained a lot more knowledge about the topic, I can’t say that I now have coherent or balanced view on the topic. The scientific understanding of the phenomenon seems very incomplete. In the mean time, I did decide that I was not agnostic, but an atheist.
I’ve met practicing Christians, and one of them even confessed in believing in angels and demons. I know of a Christian Dutchman that invested lots of money in building a real scale (?) model of the ark of Noah. I’ve learned how Japanese people can be religious, even though their religion is very different. I’ve read descriptions of religions that don’t include belief in an afterlife. I don’t think that all religions are equal, nor do I think that religious beliefs and practices necessarily deserve respect. I think that animal sacrifice and genital mutilation of children is disgusting (whether practiced by Aborigines, Jews, Muslims, Satanists or what have you). I am inclined to rank religions with regard to real world actions and harmful irrational thoughts (so, stoning to death an apostate or a presumed adulterate is much worse than believing that someone is not a match because they were born under a different astrological sign). I like to think that I equally abhor a mother that circumcises their child for religious reasons as a mother that does the same because she thinks a cut penis is aesthetically more pleasing. Nevertheless, it might be the case that sometimes I judge the irrational beliefs of religious people (as apposed to those held by secular people) more harshly than they might deserve. I suspect that this possible bias is partly caused by the words and actions of certain Muslims, firstly, my otherwise probably harmless former co-workers, and secondly, the dangerous fanatics that catch the news almost every day.