It's bad enough to be born into and involuntarily indoctrinated into a religion, but if a person has the good fortune to be born into a family of non-believers, why should he or she regress to dogma and doctrine and fantasies of the afterlife?
But then, I'm tone deaf and colorblind to religion.
Nevertheless (you can trust me here, dear blog-reader), I've read more than my share of the kind of autobiography called the "conversion narrative" in which the writer describes how he or she came to locate and embrace some particular god or creed. "Conversion narratives" generally take one of two shapes. In some of them, the subject experiences a sudden blinding insight (after the style Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus); in others, the author endures a long dark night of the soul that is painfully and gradually superseded with "enlightenment" (Newman's Apologia is the archetype).
G. Willow Wilson's memoir The Butterfly Mosque (New York, 2010) describes a conversion of a sort that I've never before encountered -- it lacks not only a voice from the clouds and but also a scalding of the heart. Wilson simply sets out with a desire to convert and then hunts for an appropriate religion -- a most odd and unusual procedure. In college, Wilson reports, she was "in the market for a philosophy." Soon after, she became a Muslim -- essentially because she wanted to be something and couldn't think of anything better.
Here's the key paragraph: "I discovered I was a monotheist.... That rules out polytheism. I also have a problem with authority, which rules out any religion with a priesthood.... And I cannot believe that having given us these bodies, God thinks we should be virgins unless we desperately feel a need to reproduce. That rules out any religion that is against family planning or sex for fun.... Islam is antiauthoritarian, sex-positive monotheism."
It's a series of reasons so quirky that it's hard to take seriously. If I were G. Willow's spiritual counselor, and she came to me with such a shallow argument, I would have said, "go home, young lady, take a couple of years and try to think more deeply."
"I discovered I was a monotheist"? Mere mysticism, no more more persuasive than "I discovered I believed in only one angel." Islam has no priesthood? Depends on how you define priest, doesn't it. No Roman-style priest who acts as an intermediary to God, but a heck of a priestly establishment nonetheless -- boatloads of imans and mullahs and ayatollahs all laying claim to special forms of knowledge. Is Islam sex-friendly? Perhaps in theory, but in practice it's hard to find a more misogynist or homophobic operation out there in monotheismland -- and I suspect that sex is more cheerful when it's shared by equal partners.
On the whole, Islam does not meet Wilson's three criteria nearly as well as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which is monotheist to a overcooked fault, supports not a single priest (only a website), and as far as I know, expresses not the slightest antagonism to sex in any form or coloration.
The Butterfly Mosque offers its readers some very sensitive insights into Egyptian society and especially into American-Muslim relations. It's also a fine little love story -- a young American woman finds a sweet young man in Cairo and tactfully negotiates the profound cultural barriers that might have divided them. Sometimes it seems a little like Romeo and Juliet gone all sentimental and gooey -- as though the young lady would be secretly happier if her marriage had caused a Montague-Capulet feud. It doesn't because both Omar's family and G. Willow's parents are urbane, sophisticated, open, loving, practical and non-ideological and offer no resistance whatsoever to the exogamous marriage. And Wilson is honest enough to admit it.
I worry about the stability of this conversion. When a new religion is embraced for such superficial reasons, it can be shucked equally as easily. It wouldn't surprise me if G. Willow returns, some day, to the steady rationality of her parents. Let's hope so.