Friday, 30 November 2007

Mohammed the Teddy Bear

In the Sudan, British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons has been sentenced to fifteen days in a Sudanese jail for insulting the prophet Mohammed. Her "crime" was letting the seven-year-olds in her class choose the name Mohammed for a teddy bear.

Apparently the good news is that she was cleared of the charge of blasphemy, which would have resulted in forty lashes.

For anyone outside looking in, this is just another example of the pernicious nature of religion.

Yes, this is an extreme example, and could be argued as being solely a case of religious extremism, not religion per se. But really, it is different only in scale, not in type, from the religions we supposedly feel comfortable with.

At its core, religion is about denying the evidence of your senses in favour of a way of thinking that you have been taught.

Further, religion is about denying your own moral compass (which contrary to what many Christians will tell you, has evolved quite independently from any religion) in favour of a prescribed set of arbitrary rules.

So under Islam, the rule is that you're not to insult the prophet Mohammed. Because it's the state religion, to do so is to risk jail and the lash. And to someone-or-other in power, naming a teddy bear Mohammed is an insult.

Under our Western version of Christianity, you're not to be gay. To do so is to risk isolation from your family and community.

These examples really amount to the same thing. The point is that religion makes otherwise good people reject what they themselves think is correct, in favour of edicts coming from the pulpit.

The practical difference here in our Western culture is that a secular decision has been made to keep state and religion separate. Here you don't get thrown in jail for being gay.

This teddy bear nonsense is the best example we've seen recently of why this is so important.

There are many fond of saying that our nation is founded on Christianity and Christian values. Thank goodness it's not.

If it really were, have no illusions that we would have very similar scenes being played out here.


Shannon said...

The return of the God blogs... awesome.

Gregory J said...

The really screwed up thing was, the child in the classroom who came up with the name Mohammed in the first place as choice which the other children finally agreed on, was called Mohammed himself. As far as I know, Mohammed is a very common name. If it is an insult to Sudanese state religion when a teacher allows schoolchildren to name a teddy bear Mohammed, then why is it *not* an insult when a parent names their child Mohammed ?
If the Sudanese legal system is based on Sharia law, then idol worhsip of the Prophet Mohammed is taboo and an offense. Is this what the government believes here ? That the teddy bear has become some kind of idol ? What about the child called Mohammed ? Surely naming a person Mohammed is more insulting to them.
Try as I might, I can't seem to believe that there is a legal distinction here between the two. I find it even more difficult to stop going down the thought path that the Sudanese government wanted to close the Christian school in which she worked and was desparate for anything to latch onto.
I understand and agree that when in another country you need to respect their culture, religion, law and values. However, I dont believe these tenants of Sudanese society were broken, nor even the other citizens of Sudan offended, so what are we left with ?

Budge said...

it's good that there are no homophobic atheists isn't it?

i have to play devils advocate (so to speak) for a minute here...

i agree that your moral compass is independent of religion. I think that it's not independent of the community you live in however. I think morality is a communally agreed beast; when someone here takes offence to their neighbour watering his garden and so shoots him, WE go "no. that's morally wrong", where at other times, in other communities the only question to answer would be "who won?"

I also wonder about "prescribed set of arbitrary rules.". A lot of those rules made a fair bit of sense to a tiny nomadic society wandering around the backblocks of the arab world. Some of them still make sense for us. A lot of "religious" people i know are actually pretty capable of working out which is which.

for a lot of us religion is not about a bunch of rules at all. it's a way to make sense of and find meaning in the world we experience. that doesn't lead us to turn around and tell our neighbour how to live; in fact sometimes quite the opposite.

i think it's fair to mount an argument that religious extremism has an large and detrimental influence on the way the world works. I don't think though that the claim of "there's no difference in type" really stacks up. if all religion leads to "teddymohammedisevil" then why doesn't all science lead to nagasaki, or all atheism to mao?

Matt said...

I love having these sorts of discussions with you, Budge. We should seriously do this more often.

Of course morality is a communally agreed beast, and of course it is subject to change. That just highlights my problem with religion . . . it has an inherent unwillingness to change.

As you say, those rules made a lot of sense 2,000 years ago. But religion says to us that we must continue to live by these ancient words, even though the world has clearly changed around them. And yes, a lot of religious people can tell the difference. But most can't.
(I say this appreciating that you represent the one branch of mainstream religion that does support question and change.)

I also agree that religion acts as a paradigm in which to make sense of the world. That's fine and good. But that's not the way 99% of religious believers see it. For them it is Truth and Fact. They believe God and Jesus are literal conscious beings. They believe that Heaven and Hell are actual physical places you go to when you die.

Our religious leaders (many of whom don't believe this themselves) prefer to have their acolytes think this way. And I think that's very dangerous.