The bizarre burial of Osama bin Laden at sea – an action necessitated by our government’s need to accommodate Islamic law requiring that a Muslim be buried within 24 hours of death – raises urgent questions about the definition of faith in America. Can a mass murderer be said to be religious? Can there be religious ritual without religious values? And should Western governments participate in this definition of religion as something that is preached as opposed to practiced?
For years US government officials as well American Muslim leaders have been saying that Osama bin Laden is not a Muslim but a charlatan, a man who ostensibly lived in accordance with Islamic ritual but whose actions violated the Islamic prohibition against killing civilian non-combatants. At his death the Islam Society of North America released a statement noting, “The ideology of bin Laden is incompatible with Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.” A spokesperson for the Muslim Public Affairs Council echoed the sentiment. “He basically hijacked Islam and became a disgrace to Muslims.” Why then if bin Laden did not live as a Muslim did it our government rush to bury him as one?
This unfortunate endorsement by the United States of faith as a collection of spiritual ritual unattached to basic laws of morality feeds a growing perception of faith-based hypocrisy that is alienating large numbers from religious tradition.
Religious truth is notoriously difficult to gauge given the competing claims of the world’s great faiths. For Jews the deification of any man is an act of sacrilege yet the divinity of Jesus is central to Christian belief. Likewise, Christianity affirms that Christ is the sole path to salvation. Yet Islam insists that Muhammad was a prophet who lived after Jesus and paved a new and exclusive road to heaven. Religious truth, therefore, is established by a different criteria entirely, namely, its ability to shape and mold righteous character in its adherents.
As a Jew I do not believe that Joseph Smith discovered golden plates written in Reformed Egyptian in 1823 which he translated with seer stones. But having had extensive exposure to the strong families and charitable communities that the Mormon Church has built worldwide, I do believe that in Western New York where he claimed to have found the plates Smith encountered universal religious truths that were incorporated into Mormonism and which account for the high ethical standards of his followers. Conversely, when a religious figure devotes his life not to compassionate acts but to a blood-filled apocalypse it is either him or his religion which is fraudulent.
Bin Laden never walked in the footsteps of Muhammad but worshipped a god of his own making. While the Koran expressly prohibits the taking of an innocent life in the strongest terms – “We ordained for the children of Israel that if anyone slew a person, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, it would be as if he slew the whole of mankind” (Sura 5:32) – bin Laden told Al Jazeera in 2001 that those who say “killing a child is not valid” in Islam “speak without any knowledge of Islamic law” because murdering a child may be done in vengeance. Bin Laden subscribed not to Islam but to Osamaism, a satanic faith of his own making where he devised the rules.
Indeed, Bin Laden and others who preach murder in the name of G-d are in no way analogous to the Pastor or Rabbi caught cheating with a congregant or the Priest found to be molesting a child, and not just because the taking of a life is more a more serious sin. For while the latter involves acts of religious inconsistency, however heinous, the former constitutes outright religious hypocrisy.
The difference is not merely semantic but cuts to the core of human nature. Few pastors believe that adultery is not a sin and few priests would argue that child molestation is a virtue. So why do so many religious people disgrace themselves by acting in contravention to basic morality? Because humans are fallible and selfish, weak and inconsistent, which is not to excuse their actions so much as to explain their failings. They mean what they preach but tragically cannot always live up to their own moral preaching.
The hypocrite, however, is he who professes a piety that he himself never believes in merely for public consumption. I was not surprised that the video trove captured by our Navy SEALs displayed bin Laden as a vain and shallow man obsessed with his celebrity and tinkering with his physical appearance. It confirmed the hypocrisy of a man who inveighed against Western corruption while enthusiastically embracing its emphasis on image to the exclusion of spiritual substance.
The same hypocrisy can be found in home-grown religious hate groups like Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church who, with their loathsome slogan ‘G-d Hates Fags’, protests the military funerals of fallen soldiers claiming that their death is the revenge of a G-d angered by America’s tolerance for homosexuality. Here is an ostensibly Christian Church whose very foundation – whatever it thinks of homosexuality – is in direct contravention of the Bible’s core teachings of reward and punishment: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.” (Ezekiel 18:20)
But notwithstanding the larger point of the difference between inconsistency and hypocrisy, the growing chasm between faith-based teachings, on the one hand, and theactions of the faithful on the other, is the greatest cancer afflicting modern religion and accounts for the popularity of the new high priests of atheism like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. They exploit the duplicity of religious ritual unaccompanied by religious values and use it to make a wider point, that religion is itself a control-motivated fraud and faith a money-making scam.
It was not Martin Luther who in 1517 was responsible for the Reformation but rather the crooked indulgences of a then-corrupt Church that had become religious without being spiritual, more interested in the soaring spires of St. Peter’s Cathedral than the moral elevation of its priests.
America is rapidly becoming a debtor nation of insatiable consumers whose unhealthy dependency on material objects for happiness three years ago collapsed down a $10 trillion economy. We are purveyors of an increasingly decadent culture whose exploitation of a fame-obsessed obsessed citizenry on television now passes for ‘reality’ and whose institutions of higher learning are often better known for drinking than for learning. We are in desperate need of the inspiration and moral realignment that only religion can impart. But it will not happen so long as we falsely define religion as a collection of empty ritual unaccompanied by moral behavior and values.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ is the international best-selling author of 26 books including his most recent work, ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.