“…a heated debate over religion with fellow students broke out at the dorm and led to people accusing Khan of blasphemy against Islam. That attracted a crowd that grew to several hundred people, according to witnesses.
The mob kicked in the door, dragged Khan from his room and beat him to death…”
I have faith, myself.
I’ve never burned anyone, or mobbed or stoned them. I’ve never rioted or chanted or held horror signs outside abortion clinics. And most of the people I know who share my faith have also never done these things.
Now, I’m not perfect. I’ve said and done hateful things before, some recently but most when I was young and stupid. And so I trust have most people of my acquaintance; seems to me that’s a part of being human.
There are religious sects that, as major tenets of the practice of their faith, command violence on others. I recognize that this happens, having watched the news and read articles such as this one. Likewise, there’s the Westboro Baptist Church and its 39 surviving members; they make the news once a month or so over their insane protests of funerals and public figures.
But these are outliers. I know this because, while the world is a pretty horrific place sometimes, there’s several billion people living here and but a few thousand kill each other — including in wars — in any given week. That’s not just religious wars; that includes the Mexican drug war, the regular casualties on each side of the Korean DMZ (and a worse-named stretch of land I’ve never seen), the victims of the sex trade and human trafficking… The list of reasons people kill each other goes on and on, and only one item on it is “Religion”. It’s not the biggest entry in the ledger — that would be filed under “greed” — but even if it were there are enough others that, statistically, it becomes almost a footnote.
It’s a horrible thing, that one person would kill another over religion. But then, it’s a horrible thing that one person would kill another over anything. We don’t need religion to make it horrible; it started that way. Religion just makes it newsworthy, God help us, and we take note of what we see rather than what we don’t.
Now, I’m a man of faith, and there’s a difference between faith and religion. The simple explanation would be that religion is the active practice of faith, the forms and outer shell, whereas faith is the motive force that drives it. It’s also true, though, that some people place their faith in other things than the traditionally religious; people can have faith in a political party, in a worthy cause, in their country — even in science, which is not really what science is for. Others practice the forms of their religion without taking the time to understand it, which goes a long way toward explaining why Catholic priests as a group vote differently from their congregations.
In addition to having faith, I’m also a man of reason. I’ve read the Koran cover to cover, and in it I see very little that would compel one person to harm another. The civil government is given authority to inflict harsh punishment for crimes that to me seem meaningless, but that’s no different from any government anywhere — including Iceland, Belgium, and Switzerland.
And yet there are Muslim clerics who would quote from this book of peace to incite violence of the most horrific sort imaginable, to justify war, to encourage self-slaughter and the slaughter of innocents. Likewise, in the American Civil War, there were preachers exhorting both sides as to the blessing of the Divine upon their chosen cause — regardless of the evils of slavery or the horrors of war. As Einstein so brilliantly put it, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
And so I’m forced to conclude from all this three things:
- There are violent and murderous assholes among us. Some are religious; some are not.
- There are foolish and ignorant people out there by the millions and billions who will follow wherever they are led.
- Some people with a cause, be it nationalism, religion, or no more nukes, can whip up a crowd of followers into a frenzied violent mob.
Note that I don’t conclude that religion is a bad thing. Religion is not an evil. But religion can be used as a tool to make others act without thinking, in much the same way a dictator can whip up nationalistic fervor to lead a country to war. And that IS an evil; making people irrational for whatever cause deprives them of judgment and restraint. A hammer is not evil; it’s a tool — but it can also be used as a bludgeon, to deprive people of reason (and life). In that case, we judge the hand behind the hammer.
The difference is an important one, especially in this day when we see wars against not countries but ideologies. One is tempted to judge and lash out in response — and it’s understandable, when a suicide bomber just blew up a marketplace or a madman drove a truck through a crowd. It’s only natural to want to summon all the strength of that righteous indignation and strike back, hard enough to make the next attacker think twice. I won’t try and stop you.
But understand: It’s of vital importance to pick the correct target when you rain judgment down like thunderbolts from the hand of an angry god. Religion as a whole isn’t the problem here; neither is the specific religion that is Islam, or Christianity, or the Jewish faith.
Our proper foes are those who directed the bomber or the driver or the angry mob, aimed them as a hunter aims a gun: Those who preach ignorance, and hate, and intolerance. The best way to fight them is to spread knowledge, and love, and wisdom, and generosity, and acceptance.
Which is why, if you speak out against religion, I don’t offer to burn or stone you for blasphemy. But, just as if you’d used “you’re” when you meant “your”, I may correct your error — politely, and as gently as I can, but inexorably.