Grading on a curve

There are a lot of accusations of “islamophobia” in the media right now, springing up every time someone comments about ISIS and religiously-motivated violence, and it’s actually a good example of a frequent lament among all faiths; it is the inveterate defense of the religious whenever incontrovertible examples of bad religious influence are mentioned. In short, such examples are not representative of any faith as a whole; they are “not my religion.” And while this should be addressed in detail, it is also evidence of a much bigger, more subtle aspect that rarely gets recognized.

Let me get the immediate snarky response out of the way first. A phobia is an irrational fear, bias, or prejudice. There can be no such thing as “islamophobia,” since it is perfectly rational to be prejudiced against violence and beheadings and even rampant sexism and idiotic standards. And if you want to get technical, from a psychological standpoint a phobia is a deep-seated, instinctual reaction, reflexive rather than considered, and does not even remotely apply to criticisms or diatribes of any kind. At best, such reactions might be a rationalization of a phobia, like those who opine that all spiders must be killed with fire, but these remain two separate concepts; the phobia is the ingrained fear of anything resembling a spider despite the knowledge that 99% are harmless. Still, we’ll let this slide as a ‘common usage’ thing, since it’s not really relevant to the issue anyway.

Because basically, what religious folk are protesting is the eradication of the label that proclaims their superiority; if islam is not a good thing, then I cannot call myself a muslim with pride anymore [adjust as necessary for every religion on earth.]

Is this being unfair? Overreaching, oversimplifying? Failing to take into account the vast majority of religious folk who never participate in violent, reprehensible acts? Well, let’s take a look at this closely.

First off, the whole fairness thing has been addressed in detail here, but to shorten it to the core essence: what, exactly, counts as balancing out murder, mutilation, abuse, bigotry, sexism, and all of the other distasteful things that draw our attention in the first place? Call me crazy, but I think the key aspect would be that these never occur in the first place. While I fully comprehend the concept that, for instance, a death may be justified if it protects the lives of many others, that’s miles away from what we’re talking about here, which is excusing the completely unacceptable actions because there are other actions that are acceptable, ignoring that the unacceptable actions are also completely unnecessary. I’m sure, if you look hard enough, that you can find a positive aspect of behavior in every mass murderer. Why should anyone give a fuck?

I’m also in complete agreement with judging individuals, and separate situations, as standing alone, rather than lumping a bunch together under a broad, overreaching label in order to pronounce judgment on something as a whole. But there are two related aspects to consider herein. The first, the trivial one, is that religious folk have absolutely no problem with using these labels themselves as it suits them; this is, in fact, why the term “muslim” (or “christian,” or “buddhist,” etc.) even exists. The reliance on labels is routinely reinforced – and the reason so many get upset when such labels no longer carry the prestige they once did.

More importantly, however, is that I, among many others, do not think it’s enough to observe that certain individuals are violent/abusive/etc., especially when they’re obviously not acting, or even identifying, as individuals. Believe it or not, there are quite a few people who would like to see the abuse stop, and that means identifying the root causes and motivations – treat the disease, not the symptoms. And yes, it is perfectly reasonable to ask if religion is really the cause or motivation behind any such occurrence. It’s important not to generalize, or rely on armchair psychology, when it comes to understanding violent acts.

Yet, it’s a pattern that keeps repeating. Not to mention that the perpetrators themselves claim religion as their motivation. Even if we can find myriad causes or deep-seated, unrecognized motivations, it’s obvious that religion is serving some purpose therein, whether it’s to provoke followers, claim an unimpeachable authority, hide behind religious exemptions within the law, or simply fool the general public. Does it actually matter what it is, if religion can so easily, and so often, be tied to irrational, abusive actions? Any terrorist that claimed diet as their motivation, or their musical tastes, wouldn’t garner many supporters or positive public opinion in any way, would they? Religion serves this purpose with its appeal towards righteousness and authority, as well as a certain degree of base tribalism that has a fundamental influence on our thinking processes.

Plus, this is a two-edged sword. The primary reason people speak out to protect the reputation of religion is its supposed value in promoting good, ethical behavior – so can we doubt this value as readily as we should doubt it promoting abuse? How can we be sure of one and not the other? Fair’s fair, of course.

And that exposes much of the real problem with all of this. In the vast majority of cases, it is remarkably simple to find the passages in scripture that condone and even provoke such abuse. This is one of the many problems with most organized religions, in that the pronouncements found within the holy books are very often contradictory – saying nothing, of course, of the ridiculously variable (and remarkably convenient) interpretations of vague passages. Religious folk really cannot make any supportable claim that violence is not a part of their True™ religion, because it’s all right there in black and white. Selecting only the peaceful aspects is no different, and no more ‘authentic,’ than selecting only the violent aspects – no one can make any holier-than-thou claim when following any religion.

This extends all the way to finding any value whatsoever in religion overall. It’s fine if anyone wants to select the good bits and ignore the bad, and can make a case for what “good” actually means – but this means that a rational decision is being made, one that does not require any reliance on a religious label or authority at all; the same process can be used for all such options, including the secular ones. However, if there is even the slightest reliance on any religion, any scripture, any pronouncement from a holy figure as being evidence of a True™ higher authority – which is the entire point of religion in the first place – then not one devout person can make any claim of authenticity or superiority over any other, no matter what the faith, no matter what the action. The very reliance on faith itself, this nonsensical abandonment of cognitive decision-making in favor of blind acceptance, is wide open for abuse. Once we accept the standard that people are free to act in accordance with whatever interpretation of scripture they prefer – once we even believe scripture has any use whatsoever in guiding decisions, or that there is a supernatural realm where the definition of “good” does not rely on interactions with other humans – then we have abandoned the application of rational thought, discarding the functionality of consequences and weighing benefits and seeking a structure that provides the best results for everyone. And this needs to be emphasized very distinctly, because it really is incredibly anti-social; my religion is special and what everyone should be respecting, regardless of how abusive it is to you. This always sounds good if you’re on the end that gets the benefits, not so much if you’re on the other end. Or if you’re not pathologically selfish…

But we’re even going to go a step further on the selfish privilege line, because those that use the word “islamophobia” (and all the other variations of the theme like, “trying to destroy christianity”) are essentially saying, “Don’t you dare notice any of the bad aspects of my religion – you have to remain as selective and blind as I am!” And to go another step, they’re actually using a term that implies an irrational, kneejerk bigotry instead of a perfectly reasonable horror over fucking beheading people. This actually goes beyond offensive to the point of being reprehensible. And the only reason why we, as a culture, are so slow to recognize this is because we’ve been badgered into thinking that religion deserves respect automatically, rather than having to earn it as every other ideology and position does.

Let’s be blunt: if religion really was a force for good, then none of these points would make any sense, because there would be no religious violence or abuse in the first place. Not only would True™ adherents never resort to such tactics, but even the idea of using religion as a disguise would be ludicrous, like committing infanticide under the auspices of ‘motherhood.’ Religion shows up so frequently and repeatedly in violence and repression and abuse because its very structure is conducive to it, emphasizing privilege and authority and the abandonment of rational consideration, far beyond any beneficial acts. “Moral” and “ethical” are not hard words to comprehend, unless you believe the oft-repeated mantra that these must stem from ancient scriptural sources.

Yet too many of the faithful, loathe to recognize that their divine influence is completely incapable of regulating even those who fully accept it, don’t try to correct this on their own, don’t resort to a much more useful ideology, don’t even redouble their efforts to paint their religion in a positive light (which, as pointed out above, would be pretty damn hard to do anyway,) but instead try to blame those that are capable of recognizing the faults, that realize how ineffectual religion is as this ‘force for good.’ They attempt to maintain their special status by drawing circles around themselves, declaring that everyone outside does not represent their True™ Religion, which of course no one is allowed to badmouth. No no no, if bad things are happening, it must be something else, because by definition my religion cannot be bad. You’re bad if you believe that those bad people are motivated by my religion.

Interestingly, corporations and organizations have no problems dealing with those who depart from their standards, by firing employees, revoking memberships, publicly denying affiliations, and in extreme cases, actually taking perpetrators to court. Rest assured that if I started my own troop of Boy Scouts of America that permitted homosexual members and scoutmasters, the lawsuit would be immediate and any media I used would be blocked by legal force. Yet anyone can call themselves a sunni or baptist or buddhist, because there are no membership standards, no legal standing, no possible recourse. Which, when you come to think of it, makes any such title ultimately worthless. Most people don’t bother to think about it, though, and only accept the long-standing social idea that religion is good – god forbid anyone should have the slightest obligation to demonstrate this attribute.

But here’s the worst part. Every time someone defends their title, like “christian” or “muslim,” they perpetuate the idea that the title actually has meaning, and thus they enable the abuses in the first place. Every time someone defines themselves, not by what they do or even by their goals, but by their affiliation with some imagined ideal, they emphasize that this ideal has some kind of value. And let’s face it: we only have millions of people around the world believing in imaginary beings and realms and Master Plans because they keep hearing that others believe it, so it must make sense. Whining that this ludicrous state of affairs deserves respect is exactly why religion can be used as a recruiting tool for any batshit behavior imaginable. Insisting that there is some greater good or ultimate reward, in abject denial of the complete lack of evidence, legitimizes spirituality and mysticism and the justification of actions that result in very visible, measurable harm.

And thus, there are no ‘levels’ of religious belief, no divisions, no demarcations. Once anyone accepts the idea that some authority exists that is outside evidence, that any Greater Good exists apart from (and often in contradiction of) what is demonstrably beneficial, then the ground rules have been laid, and no one can then claim anyone else is bad for following the same damn rules. There’s really nothing to add to that.

No ideology should be about flaunting a title. It should only be about setting and maintaining goals. Nobody wears any symbol that denotes themselves as friendly, since it is immediately obvious to everyone interacting with them. We know someone is helpful when they help us. Imagine if everyone treated this as valuable, and the way they should earn respect?

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