I am hearing so many people arguing on one side or the other of the “religion is bad” argument at the moment, whether directed towards solely Islam or towards religion in general, after the Charlie Hebdo murders by fundamentalists. Specifically, I saw an enormous argument blow up over the image above. So I thought it best that I plant my flag on this debate about religious violence.
It is my belief that the major reason why atheists and sceptics such as myself and others who consider religious people to tend more towards violence as a solution to disagreement is due to the inherently irrational nature of religious belief itself. The sceptic is unlikely to kill in the name of their beliefs regarding higher beings, or the lack thereof; because the sceptic generally understands them as merely ideas, rather than key elements of their self-identity.
People who do not believe in a higher power do not kill in the name of not believing in a higher power. It is simply not a belief which ingrains itself so deeply into a person that one feels the need to kill others who disagree with it. People frequently claim that Stalin killed “in the name of atheism,” however this conflates communism with atheism. Stalin did not kill in the name of disbelief in god – Stalin killed in the name of a sociopolitical ideology which he believed would improve the world. Social and policial theories differ from the principle of atheism just as much as religious beleifs do. Additionally, in claiming that scientists killed innumerable people by creating multitudes of weapons of war as something which suppoprts the evils of atheism, the same mistake of distinction is made between those who follow the scientific method, and the atheist. Not all scientists are atheists, just as not all atheists are scientists. When Oppenheimer completed the bomb, he did not declare “That’s for offending my belief that there are no gods.” So no, no-one has ever killed in the name of atheism.
However, religion is a system which lends itself far too easily towards violence, as it is founded in an irrational suspension of reason. Regardless of how rational the believer may hold their belief to be, it always requires a logical jump from their experiences and the facts of the world around them, to a particular kind of higher power. All the arguments for the existence for god fall victim to this leap of reason, even those concocted by the highly scientifically-minded philosophers of the old church, such as Descartes or Anselm. This lack of rational consistency strikes the unbeliever as leaving a gap in any argument with a religious person that can all too easily be filled with violence. When one runs out of reasonable arguments for a rational, falsifiable position, the sceptic acknowledges either defeat or uncertainty. When the religious runs out of arguments, they can fall back on simple, unquestionable belief; and to question that belief is to question the very fabric of the religious person themselves.
The problem of personal identity is what really makes the nature of religious belief systems dangerous. Human experience is a constant struggle to understand ones self, and to define it. We will defend to extraordinary extremes anything which threatens our personal sense of identity – such as when people challenge, mock or dismiss our closely-held beliefs. When one identifies as an atheist it can certainly become a major part of ones identity; one only needs to look at such arseholes as Richard Dawkins to see how vigorously (and sadly, how unreasonably) one can come to defend an atheist position. However, I would argue that Dawkins militant atheism – a belief that there is no god and no-one else should believe in god either – is much more aggressive position than that of the core principle of atheism, which is simple a lack of belief in gods. Dawkins extends his disbelief in something into a belief in a lack of something, which he has come to defend as irrationally as may religious people – though he does stop short of murder. But anything can become so firmly ingrained in ones identity as to elicit hideous, inexcusable behaviour – take the cretinous gamergate movement, for example. However, religious beliefs, by their very nature, frequently become an essential keystone in the construction of an individual’s identity.
But religion, by its very nature, is easy to build into an essential component of ones identity. All religions across the world are full of moral imperatives, instructions on how to best become happy, or how to reach another life. Religions are crafted specifically so that if one is to take them seriously in any way, one must build ones life to fit the shape defined by the religion. This intrinsically leads that belief, whatever form it may take, to become such a major part of ones idea of self, defensible to the death. If one were to write a handbook on how to make someone take an idea so wholly into themselves that they could not understand the distinction between where the idea ends and their own self-definition begins, one would be writing a handbook on how to create a religion. Few things beyond family, religion or patriotism have the power to make us behave in such a self-sacrificial way on behalf of a concept – which could well lead me towards explaining how the tribal nature of religion also renders its followers more likely to tend towards violent defence, but I think I have gone on long enough. None of the inherently violent nature of religion, however, justifies vilifying an entire race of people. Or an entire group of religious people.
None of this overrides the essential knowledge that no single human being, or small group of people claiming allegiance to a larger, global group or people, are ever representative of the larger group. The actions of a few cannot be taken as a reliable sample of the whole – that is a simple, unquestionable fact. So I will not condemn Islam, and nor will I excuse the racist and Islamophobic publications of Charlie Hebdo. I will condemn the discriminatory publications of the French magazine with the same breath that I condemn those who used their religion as an excuse to murder people. I will praise the critical satire of Charlie Hebdo in the same breath that I praise the response of so many Muslims to the actions of the gunmen who abused the name of their religion. I will stand in the street and, as Ahmed Merabet did, defend to the death the rights of people to say what they wish without fear of violent response; while at the same time I shout down the words of falsehood and hatred that people have all the right in the world to say, but no right to have respected or listened to.
So no, religion and religious people are not inherently violent – but the thought processes required in order to be religious are inherently less likely to leave a human being happy to settle only for debate in defence of their ideas. To ignore that so much of the violence in today’s world is considered to be religious violence is no more excusable than to ignore that so much violence is caused by greed, racism, sexism, imperialism and capitalism.