Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Religion It Is

That idiotic, fundamentalist Christian preacher down in Florida who threatened to burn a Koran, Terry Jones, went through with it. When idiotic, fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan found out about it, they rioted. A mob of thousands formed, intent on finding an American to kill in retribution. Failing at that, they settled for killing foreigners working at the local United Nations office.

Burning a copy of the Muslim holy book as Terry Jones did was offensive to Muslims. It was disrespectful to Muslim traditions. It was likely to provoke a violent reaction among Muslims. Even a fundamentalist Christian bigot like Terry Jones should have shown more decency.

However, murdering people to take revenge for the burning of a book is not even close to being an acceptable reaction. Not even if they were murdering the people who actually burned the book. And most certainly not when they were murdering innocent people who had absolutely nothing to do with the burning of that book.

It is absurd that it ever crosses our minds that destroying a copy of a certain book is almost certainly going to get people elsewhere in the world killed. That it might spawn protests and strongly worded letters, I could understand that, but murder I simply cannot fathom.

Yet this is the power of religion in our world. It justifies fundamentalist Christian bigotry and foolishness. For fundamentalist Muslims it justifies the brutal murder of innocent people. A way of life that encourages the faithful to snuff out the life, hopes, and dreams of someone because someone else, half a world away, burned a book… this is a pathology of the mind that we would be better off without.

The idea for the text on this picture came from these advertisements.

"If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years." -Bertrand Russell


Ben Mordecai said...

Hi Bill, I follow you on twitter (@benmordecai). I enjoy your tweets and I agree on several points in spite of the fact that I am a conservative Christian who has politically conservative leanings (although I too get frustrated with the buffoonery of the Republican party).

For example, agree that:
Terry Jones made an idiotic decision to burn a Koran
The radical Muslims were idiotic to respond the way they did in rioting and murdering Americans
This is a ridiculously unacceptable reaction

That being said, I do have a frustration that is worth voicing. I get that the image is a parody on the anti-meth PSA's and intended to be a joke, but at the same time to blame "religion" in the matter misses the point on several counts:

Both Terry Jones and the rioting radical Muslims represent people on the fringes of their respective religions. In order to draw the conclusion you did I would want to see you make a case that this kind of behavior is normative outside of the fringes. Any group (be it religious or not) that gets large enough will gain obnoxious, bigoted, and/or evil members. Christians have fundamentalists, Muslims have radicals, Hindus have nationalists, Atheists have communists, Aflac has Gilbert Godfry, and on and on.

The peace among diversity has to come through understanding everyone at their own terms and for their owns goals and values. Not that all of these are equally worthy of respect (they aren't) but that before ideas can duke it out, emotions and personal offenses needs to be laid to rest.

If you write me back, shoot me an email or mention me on twitter.


Billtannica said...

Hi Ben. Thanks for taking the time to read my post and compose an excellent response.

As you noted, the picture was intended to evoke humor as well as make a larger point that formed the thesis of the blog post. No matter how well written, I've noted that humor travels further than essays on the internet.

You are right to point out that Terry Jones is a fringe element within Christianity. And if I might expand on your point a bit, murdering people for heresy is profoundly uncommon among Western Christians.

However that is not because Christian doctrine doesn't allow it. It is owed to the secularization of those Western societies. A process of moral progress that has been (and still is) hard fought by Christian leaders at each step, yet it has happened, dragging Christianity kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages and eventually into the 21st Century, while denying religions much political power.

Islam is a different case. Yes, we can find secular Muslims, but overwhelmingly Islam is intermingled at every level of those societies that are predominately Muslim. This lack of secular influences on politics and social expectations is preventing the advancement of most Muslim societies, leaving them mired in medieval ethical systems.

Islam is merely where Christianity was a few hundred years ago. Pretending otherwise (not that you did, I'm just off on a tangent) is drawing a poor distinction between religions that if taken to their fundamentalist extremes uncorrupted by secularism are little different from one another. Which is the danger of religion in my view. Even in moderate forms, its literalist and unethical roots lurk within the theology ready to be embraced by fundamentalists.

The last point I want to address is I agree that various religions have their own extremist fringe groups. But I disagree that the non-religious extreme is communism or that there even could be some kind of fundamentalist atheism. We atheists bicker among ourselves about things way too much to ever agree on a doctrine on which a great philosophy could ever be built.

We don't even all agree on the definition of the word atheist and certainly don't agree on politics. I'm a liberal, but many are libertarian, some conservative, some socialist, some are anarchists, and some might be communist. But being a non-believer doesn't seem to correlate strongly with anything extremist other than maybe being pedantic. LOL

Ben Mordecai said...

Hi Bill, thanks for the follow-up.

I'm wondering if you might clarify something in reference to secularization. There are two ways you could take this. The first would be to say that the rise of atheistic/secular thought has resulted in moral progress and less violence. The second would be to say that as societies begin to secularize (as in to separate religion from politics) there has been moral progress. I would agree with you if you mean it in the second sense.

The main issue is that up until the democratization of the West, nations have found their identity in the state religion. This idea has caught on so quickly that to us (or at least to me) it seems foreign to think of a state sponsored church or religion, yet it was only within the last 300 years or so when America's founders considered it necessary to prohibit the establishment of a state-sponsored church. In other words it was necessary to specifically prohibit this in order to prevent a de-facto state church from arising.

Thus, as you turn back the clock it becomes very difficult to determine the difference between the actions of a nation and the actions of the state church. For example, Geneva at the time of John Calvin had Michael Servetus, who was clearly a heretic by any Christian standards, burnt at the stake for heresy. Most consider this the single biggest stain on the otherwise virtually spotless record of John Calvin. Yet what most people never hear about is the fact that in that setting, heresy was a civil crime akin to treachery and being an enemy of the state. The execution was carried out by the state for a crime against the state. Given, this is a terrible law, and Calvin genuinely should have stepped up to bat for Servetus more than he did, yet for Calvin to be portrayed as a "burner of heretics" is definitely not an accurate picture.

I'm finding difficulty in keep this brief because there are so many tangents I could follow. The fact that Atheism was not really manifest in a meaningful way a few hundred years ago, the fact that one belief system can't be held responsible for what other theistic belief systems do, and the fact that the dark ages represent a time when the Bible was latin-locked from those who would seek to read it. So to keep things to the point, I want to bring Jesus into the conversation.

Jesus said, "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." This is Christian doctrine straight from the mouth of Jesus, yet this is definitely not what all Christians follow - which I consider a judgement on them. The behavior that Christians have and do participate in does not always match Jesus and that is an understatement. This is true of the crusaders, the corrupt popes, the Spanish Inquisition, the European colonialists, the dutch slave traders, Westboro Baptist Church, and Terry Jones. I wish that the greater Christian community had the option to authoritatively cut them off from the church as they are in clear, consistant violation of Jesus' teaching.

Jesus did love his enemies. From the cross he did pray and said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." This is the good news that Christians are supposed to bring to the whole world, not violence. And a lot do. If you Google "Food Pantry near [city, state]" take a look at what kind of results you find.

Anyway, thanks for bearing with me and I look forward to continuing to chat with you as time goes on.

Take care,


Billtannica said...

Of those two ways of interpreting secularism, my meaning is quite similar to the second option you presented. That political and economic power was shifted away from theological underpinnings and churches. That process is indeed only a few hundred years old, starting slowly in the Renaissance and picking up steam in the Enlightenment.

With a few noteworthy but brief confluences of time and place, the various ages of civilization before the Renaissance are largely indistinguishable from one another in a moral sense. Local or religious flavors of the same barbarity, cruelty, and tyranny that almost universally defined the wielding of power. Power that was, as you rightly pointed out, so intertwined with religion that it is hard to separate where the church ended and the state began.

Or to put it another way, religions as we recognize them today, have had at least 3000 years in which to progress ethics to the betterment of humanity. Which they all failed to do, despite possessing enormous resources and influence. It wasn't until religion began to be intellectually and politically marginalized that the process of developing humane societies began to see any real progress. Which is not to say that social progress is anywhere near completion or that there have been no setbacks. But on balance we have come further in the last 200 years than in the previous 3000.

I'm of the mind that stripping the church of its power and authority has been the best thing to ever happen to Christianity. It has allowed modern, moderate congregations to focus on the nicer parts of the Bible and ignore the Bronze Age psychopathy. In this way they can not only fit into modern societies seamlessly, but serve as examples for some really beneficial works. Such as the Christian food pantries you mentioned. Those are good things and just one of many charities that are Christian in origin.

However, it is not necessary that charities be religious to exist and do good works. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does a lot of good from eduction to vaccination and it wholly secular. Likewise secular Western governments do lot to help people at home and abroad. There remains much that can still be done to improve the overall human condition but the point is that things have been improving especially if one is lucky enough to live in a secular pluralistic democracy.