Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Religious Texts Are Quoted to Defend Positions

How religious texts are quoted to defend positions


MONTREAL: Sikhs invoke the Guru Granth Sahib to justify men wearing turbans instead of hard hats on work sites. Muslims point to the Koran as proof the prophet Muhammad wanted women to dress modestly to avoid the gaze of men.

Christians quote apocalyptic passages from the New Testament to say global warming is unavoidable. All are examples of how age-old scripture is used — or misused — to dictate behaviour in the modern world, scholars said yesterday at a McGill University interfaith conference on the role sacred texts play in religion.

History has shown that devotees of one religion don’t let their ignorance of another religion stop them from criticizing it

“The texts are more than a source — they’re an anchor, and they give you a certain authority when you quote from them,” said organizer Manjit Singh, who runs McGill’s chaplaincy services and also heads the Canadian Sikh Council in Montreal. (Manjit Singh, who became in 1998 McGill’s first Sikh chaplain, became director of Chaplaincy Services in August 2006. He was the first non-Christian to hold the position.)

For example, he said, Sikh truck drivers in Quebec are using scripture in their fight to keep their turbans on when driving through the Port of Montreal, where helmets are mandatory.

The truckers have invoked their religion’s three-century-old scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, as evidence their faith requires them to wear their hair long and wrapped up, Mr. Singh said during a break in the day-long conference at McGill’s Birks Chapel. But scripture can be taken too literally, other experts warned. In older religions, the teachings of Jesus and Buddha were written down decades or even centuries after they died, making their “truth” inaccurate, its inconsistencies resolvable only by faith, they said.

“Each religion claims that its texts are legitimate, but very often there’s little historical evidence of that,” said Buddhist scholar Mathieu Boisvert, a religion professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal. And “when religion is used for political ends, it definitely gets distorted,” added Concordia University Hindu scholar T. S. Rukmani.

History has shown that devotees of one religion don’t let their ignorance of another religion stop them from criticizing it, added Muslim scholar Sheila McDonough, a Concordia professor emeritus. People will pick and choose among the rival religion’s sacred texts to “prove” a misconstrued point, she said.

In the Internet age, there’s also a danger of people one-click shopping for religious truth, said Ellen Aitken, dean of McGill’s religious studies faculty, which hosted the event with the Canadian Sikh Council. Christians have used a single verse to justify an entire point of view, she said. For example, Christian fundamentalists in the United States have used the Bible to oppose everything from abortion and homosexuality to the ordination of women and the global campaign against climate change, Ms. Aitken said.

(Courtesy National Post)

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