I must begin by recognizing that the love one feels for one’s land, whether native or ancestral, can be sometimes very real and heart-felt. The recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico have brought back memories of the love and education I received from old people in my family, and of their wholesome example, self-sufficiency, pride, foods and other things that are always going to be a cherished part of me.
I can understand the love of Jerusalem felt by Matisyahu, who sings a song to the city, or the love felt by Israeli singer Yasmin Levy whose beautiful rendition of Irme Kero in Ladino (the medieval Judeo-Spanish dialect) is filled with longing that can be described as spiritual. In fact, I often listen to Sephardic music. The themes of exile and longing for a home remind me of both my Puerto Rican and my gay experience.
Having said that–and for the very same reason that this is one of the natural vulnerabilities of humans that religions are often keen to exploit–it is our responsibility to make sure that no priest or imam, no religion, no ideology, usurps those things we cherish in the service of ideals that lead to suffering, idiocy, violence, injustice, etc. Epicurus was always sounding the alarm that the beliefs we choose must be our source of happiness.
The above video is a funny and accurate description of the history of Jerusalem–which is about to burn, courtesy of Trump’s big mouth, and courtesy of poisonous religious hatreds whose seeds were planted in the Bronze Age. Secular humanist–and particularly Epicurean–philosophy can give real moral guidance in these times, and provide a much-needed critique of the very bad idea of a god that intervenes in history, has chosen tribes in petty battles, and invites them to engage in genocide. If we don’t question the false, infantile, evil beliefs surrounding this God, if we don’t put him on trial and expose the legacy of these false beliefs and actively look for and find healthier beliefs to replace them, these bad ideas will continue to spread like a cancer–together with the bloodshed they bring.
Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot gives us some cosmological perspective on how petty this God looks, when he is imagined as entangled in these tribal wars and hatreds, to someone who understand our real place as tiny creatures in the vast cosmos.
The fact that this is addressed in the very first of Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines–which argues that a divinity, if it exists, would not bring trouble to other beings–implies that this is an important and basic principle to an Epicurean, and that it deserves to be one of the first foundations among our commonly accepted views.
A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness.
So we have to ask ourselves: Would a true divine being worthy of the name God bring this much trouble to Jerusalem, or to any other nation, tribe, or population? The clear moral superiority of Epicurus in this regard is undeniable. Epicurus assigns to true religion the goal of helping us to experience “pure, unalloyed pleasure”, and in his Epistle to Menoeceus says:
Believe about God whatever may uphold both his blessedness and his immortality … Not the man who denies the gods worshiped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious.
These are moderate standards! It’s not much to ask. And yet these standards have the power to dignify us, and even to reform and elevate religion!
Our beliefs about our Gods are a serious moral issue that affects everyone’s well-being and global security. In the Torah, God (or rather, God’s ventriloquists who attribute these ignoble and infamous words to God) calls on the Jews to kill all those who live in Canaanite lands and leave no one alive, and take their women as sex slaves, etc. As a result, the entire Old Testament is an orgy of genocide and violence, all done in the name of greed and the desire to grab land that belonged to other tribes. That this was planned from the beginning is obvious in the Torah, which seems to have been written as a justification for these campaigns of religious terror:
Numbers 13:2 Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.
Numbers 35:8 The towns you give the Levites from the land the Israelites possess are to be given in proportion to the inheritance of each tribe: Take many towns from a tribe that has many, but few from one that has few.
There are many episodes of genocide and terror in the Old Testament. One that stands out in my memory is found in Joshua 10:26, where Joshua decided to hang the corpses of the kings of various tribes that he mass-slaughtered from high poles so that they would be visible to everyone and cause terror and intimidation. I wish those who believe in the Bible would be more honest and willing to put visuals next to the verses of their holy text: they would see that their sacred book was written with blood, that entire books within it are barbaric and uncivilized, and that if the acts depicted in it were to happen today, the perpetrator would be considered a terrorist and would have to appear before a tribunal for crimes against humanity.
Islam is no less guilty of imagining its divinity with ignoble attributes. In one verse calling for holy vengeance in Koran 2:191, Muhammad claimed that his God said things like “murder them wherever you find them” and “disbelief is worse than murder”. Concerning Jerusalem specifically, Australian Imam Tawhidi reports that one hadith teaches that prophet Muhammad was so hostile to the Jews and resentful of the fact that they didn’t convert to Islam, that he used to go to the toilet in the direction of (the now “holy” city of) Jerusalem! In fact, he changed the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca because he was rejected by the Jews.
While Islam has many sacred cities and sites, and none has been desecrated by Jews, the Ottomans built the Dome of the Rock on top of the holiest site in the only city that is holy to the Jews: Jerusalem. Consider the insolence of asking for tolerance after you plant a temple on top of your neighbor’s holiest temple, even after your prophet went to the toilet in its direction out of hatred for your people! Imagine the scandal and violence that would ensue if this was done to them: if Jews or Christians were to level the Kaaba in Mecca and build a synagogue or church on top! This arrogance is a pattern in Islam. Raif Badawi had this to say on the idea of building a mosque where 9/11 took place:
What increases my pain is this (Islamist) chauvinist arrogance which claims that the innocent blood, which was shed by barbarian, brutal minds under the slogan ‘Allah Akbar’, means nothing when compared with the act of building an Islamic mosque whose mission will be to re-spawn new terrorists and demanding even that the mosque be constructed near the same area. This is a blatant affront to the memory of American Society in particular and humanity in general, none of whom accept in any way that scene of mass murder.
… Suppose that we put ourselves a little in the place of American citizens. Would we accept that a Christian or Jew assaults us in our own house and then build a church or synagogue in the same area of the attack???? I doubt it.
The God of Abrahamic religions in these scriptures behaves like Don King. He starts fights among nations apparently for his own amusement or profit. He tells Jews to invade a land, and then tells Muslims to fight to the end those who invade their lands or expel them from their home. Is this behavior worthy of a god? Again, our first Principal Doctrine teaches that these things imply weakness on the part of a deity: Would a true divine being worthy of the name God bring this much trouble to Jerusalem?
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion. – Steven Weinberg
The sorry state in which the world is today as a result of people’s particular and stupid beliefs about the city of Jerusalem is an indictment against conventional religion and a warning about its dangers. Because of the profound superstition and ignorance of so many, these disputes are unavoidable. But if more people looked to Athens rather than to Jerusalem, to Epicurus rather than to Abraham, to philosophy rather than to religion, we would see less of the kinds of violent international entanglements that we are seeing. Our beliefs would be a source of pleasure, not of misery.