I think I have to go back and rename these posts so the topic title is more appropriate and no longer a question, but that would ruin all of the outside links to these posts (snerk!) so for now, we’ll just continue blithely onward even though we can no longer phrase things in the form of a question. Today we’ll talk about how the disturbingly huge number of horrendous and outright bloodthirsty actions done in the name of religion inevitably invokes the response, “but that wasn’t my religion!” or more generically, “but that wasn’t us!“
First, there’s a curious distinction that needs to be addressed, because I am very much in favor of avoiding over-generalizations, ‘painting everyone with the same brush’ so to speak, and firmly believe that actions should be judged individually; there is no ideology in existence that can be said to enjoin or provoke specific behaviors universally, and may of them are so vague that they can be interpreted at will. When we look at any of the christian crusades in history, for instance, they were a product of cultures, of economic circumstances, of current knowledge and educational practices, and of perceived consequences as much, if not more so, than they were a product of religious leaders’ provocation, much less scriptural guidance – it is not safe or accurate to say, “religion caused this,” in any circumstances.
But then, there’s the other side of the coin, where we notice that religious motivations lie entwined within that huge number of vicious actions, then and now, and are forced to ask, “So why is this so frequently the case?” It is certainly safe to say that anyone’s local episcopal church is not even remotely aimed towards slaughtering infidels, but ignoring the common denominators in some of the worst events in history – again, then and now – is not prudent or rational. We can put such things down to simple ‘human nature,’ which is a rational possibility, and claim that the religious influence is simply a unifying by-product, a semi-tangible cause that people can focus upon, and note that it occurs for other ideologies as well – political parties for sure, and cultural influences, and so on. But by what margin should these outnumber the religious motivations, especially the outright religious banners and organizations and root goals? And as I’ve asked before, if religion is a by-product, a handy flag to wave because the cultures of the times put influence upon them, how did this even come to be seen as ‘proper,’ especially given how often most religions espouse doing ‘good’ things? At what point, and in what manner, did, “Love thy neighbor,” get twisted about to mean, “and watch him die in pieces”? If we put such a thing down to, for instance, a particularly misguided but charismatic leader of any kind, how did so many followers manage to miss the departure from the True™ message of their faith?
Since the reputed value of religion is in how it makes people good, we have to face the ugly fact that when it is linked in any form to violence, persecution, bigotry, and other such detrimental actions and attitudes, the value is nil – there is no better demonstration that it fails, really. What we have left are the claims that, no matter how horrific an action, “this is what god wants and I’m doing as I should,” one of the more common definitions of piety, but again, should we even attempt to see any value in this? Personal salvation is, as I’ve said before, remarkably self-centered and antisocial, not to mention completely antithetical to the altruistic messages put forth by most religions in the first place. And quite frankly, if any god really is pitting humans against one another in its name, who the fuck needs that? You could prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that such a god exists and I’d still consider it a piece of shit – I’d just make the switch from atheism to antitheism.
We’re now a lot closer to the heart of the matter, and the message, which is that zealotry of any kind can too often lead far, far away from beneficial outcomes; this includes religion, this includes politics, this includes animal activism and “health consciousness” and “the right to self-defend” and so on. While examining the deep sociological motivations behind large groups of people driven to extreme actions can be useful, especially in identifying the causal factors, the goal really is to prevent such things from happening again. Is it necessary to determine the exact sequence of events, the distinct methods of motivation? Or is it easier to espouse approaching all of our actions critically, the function of asking, “How is this supposed to help, and what am I hoping to accomplish?” for everything?
And let’s face it: anyone who believes in an ultimate authority, a guiding force larger and more important than humans themselves, is remarkably easy to manipulate, requiring nothing more than convincing them that they know what this authority really wants. Do we honestly believe that all participants in holy wars have received their instructions from divine visitation, that god spoke to them all directly? Or did most of them receive their ‘religious’ impetus through some self-appointed mouthpiece, one that even told them that such-and-such scriptural passage really means, “Let’s apply weaponry to others”? Exactly how many religious adherents are even capable of listening to any and every religious leader and saying, “No, that’s not right,” when the preaching starts going off the rails? Because we all know that virtually every religion really, really hates that kind of behavior, and the priests and rabbis and imams and other figureheads do everything in their power to ensure that it doesn’t take place. And so, when the protest comes that, “That’s not my religion,” the response remains, “But could it be? In what way do you assure yourself that you cannot be driven to extreme action?” Are we to believe that any given religious adherent is responsible enough to halt a trend towards antisocial impact, or is the protest merely that they have never been directed to act viciously yet? There’s a huge difference between these.
Most people believe they’re in control and not prone to irrational excesses – but then, when enough get together, what becomes the ‘norm?’ I live among three college towns, and when the local sports team of either snags the annual country-wide championship of one type or another, the downtown area becomes a riot scene in celebration of this. Why? What does this accomplish? Why do so many of the idiots out there setting bonfires in the middle of the street never ask themselves any questions at all about the function of this? And this is in relation to a fucking game, a ‘title’ that depends on more than a smidgen of random luck and disappears in a few months – followed and supported by those enrolled in one of our institutes of higher learning, the place that we count on to teach useful thinking skills…
There’s another aspect that I wish to point out, because I’ve personally seen this kind of response far too often, and it’s gotten both old and insulting. Whenever someone brings up any instance where religious fervor has led to reprehensible behavior, we’re/they’re not looking to throw blame – the goal is to prevent it from happening again. The protest that, “It wasn’t me!” is meaningless, whiny bullshit, especially if the protester can demonstrate no way in which they couldn’t have succumbed to such behavior. But more to the point, if you’re not part of the solution, shut up and get out of the way. While religious folk hate being compared to other religious folk when it comes to bad things, they certainly depend on it when the attitude seems to be beneficial, and extol their great numbers frequently, never bothering to differentiate. Worse, even when they’re assured that they’re following the right path, the one supported by the highest of authorities and powers, somehow they never involve themselves in eradicating or even protesting these ‘false’ religions that cause the ills. Who else in the world is most capable, most supported, in a goal of this nature? If god is on your side, then have at it; you’re the best soldiers in this fight.
Wow, that sounds like I’m suggesting another holy war, doesn’t it? And most of us see that as the most likely outcome, because it’s the way that so many such conflicts in the past have turned out – clashing ideologies never results in the formation of one consolidated, True™ one, and zealots convinced of their own goodness don’t ever have the mindset to stop and ask themselves what ‘good’ really means. That requires the ability to question oneself, exactly the opposite of ‘faith,’ and can only be done by those who admit to the possibility of being wrong. And let’s face it: umpteen hundred different religions across the face of the planet, not at all counting the thousands that came and went, does not in any way support the idea that one in particular is even effective, much less correct. This is, instead, what we should expect to see if they were all mythical nonsense.
Unfortunately, pointing such a thing out to most religious folk is only motivation to immediately make excuses, to search for loopholes, or to merely assert their own correctness once again by dismissing everything that runs counter to their faith. “This is the way god planned it to be,” they say, usually at least aware enough not to add out loud what they’re thinking, “and I will be the winner in the end.” Yet the soil is made up of others that believed exactly the same thing, and we don’t even know their names.