Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tragedy at the Hajj and the Irrelevance of Religious Morality

Once again hundreds of religious pilgrims died from trampling each other at a "holy" site in Mina, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia.  The actual death toll was over 700 as of last week.  The trampling took place near the location where the ritual of throwing pebbles at the "devil" takes place.  In 1990, 1426 died in a stampede associated with the pilgrimage, that time in a tunnel leading to "holy" sites in Mecca.

It is an obligation to make the pilgrimage at least once in one's lifetime if one is able to arrange it.  Since there are over a billion Muslims, this means many converge upon Mina and Mecca, particularly during religious holidays, and the crowds have become unmanageable leading to stampedes and the deaths of innocent people, despite the efforts of the Saudis.  Please note that this pilgrimage is entirely a religious exercise - nothing is accomplished as far as I can see that could not be accomplished without this pilgrimage, except for the pilgrimage.

It is instructive to read how a Muslim, Nima Elbagir of CNN, views the Hajj: " For Muslims to complete the Hajj is to be reborn. To die in the Hajj is a blessing.  You are considered to have been martyred, cleansed of sin.  In the space of less than a week, during the Hajj, millions of Muslims stream along prescribed routes, undertaking the same rituals within the same narrow window of time. Islam requires the rites of the Hajj be completed only once in a lifetime and even then only if you are able.  There's a reason for that -- the Hajj is hard.  I've done it only once.  It was one of my first big assignments when I joined CNN.  As a practicing Muslim, it was an almost indescribable experience. As you walk for hours among Muslims of every possible color and nationality, the physical toll of the Hajj is meant to humble you. And it does.

In the press of humanity, it doesn't take much to spark panic.  Muslims believe the rite of "stoning the devil" is a re-enactment of the temptation of the prophet Abraham by Satan on the same site.  As you throw the stones, you are conjuring your own personal demons...  

When pilgrims set off, they know there is a real possibility that they might not come home.  Many truly hope they won't...  As the families of the victims of this tragedy struggle to come to terms with their loss, they will also be struggling to come to terms with the knowledge that the risk was always there.  As they grieve, they'll be told these were the lucky ones.  And some will pray that they will be lucky, too..."

If I understand the situation correctly, some, if not many Muslims believe, or claim to believe that dying during a Hajj is a blessing and they are "martyred."  This is not unlike hearing, at a Christian funeral for example, that the deceased is "in a better place" or that God "wanted them" in heaven for some undisclosed purpose.  Many Christians who died for their beliefs, and their beliefs alone, were considered "martyred" and many have been "sainted."  They are revered by many and their deaths are seen as heroic, not futile.

These are the problems with religious belief, religious morality and religion itself; the belief in the afterlife distorts our view of our life while we're alive; and what is considered moral may have no relationship to human well being and may even be very bad for us.  If there is an eternal afterlife, our real lives on this earth in this lifetime are almost irrelevant.  What is less than 100 years in life on earth compared to an eternity in heaven?  The answer is basically NOTHING - unless heaven does not exist and/or the believer's version of the divine is in error, and then our earthly lives becomes all important and worthy of cherishing.  With an afterlife, however, dying pointlessly for some supernatural purpose otherwise becomes all important, again, unless it is in error, of course.  Please keep in mind however, that non-Muslim religious persons see no point in dying  in the Hajj while non-Christian believers see no point  in dying defending the idea that Jesus is God.  To the vast majority of humans on this planet, dying for someone else's mistaken belief system is a tragedy not a blessing and not martyrdom.  In actuality almost everyone agrees on this subject with the exception being when their own beliefs are considered.

If we want to promote a better life for humanity on this earth in our lifetimes, a humanistic approach is a requirement.  Caring about others is the source and starting point of a real morality, not belief in one or another supernatural myth.  We need to get past the martyrdom that helps no one.

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