It would be easy to see this week's mass murders of UN workers and others in Afghanistan, slaughters that were apparently sparked by Koran-burning by Florida pastor Terry Jones, as evidence of how, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, "religion poisons everything." These events demonstrate, one could argue, just how irrational and dangerous some religious beliefs can be. Indeed, to produce this level of carnage it took not just one act of irrationality, but a chain spanning at least two continents and two Abrahamic faiths.
To get things started it took only ordinary religious belief, nothing all that uncommon in America today. It took Jones, with his fundamentalist belief that the creator of the universe relayed Absolute Truth to ancient prophets who then memorialized that Absolute Truth in literal form in what we now call the Bible. Such beliefs alone, of course, usually don't result in direct acts of violence or even much controversy.
In his unique understanding of scripture, however, Jones interpreted biblical truth as justifying, if not requiring, him to lead his followers in the act of insulting Muslims by burning the Koran. As such, the chain of irrationality was underway.
To continue the chain, we must go to the other side of the world where once again we find common, ordinary religious beliefs, nothing that would usually be considered inherently dangerous. We find the Afghans, with their fundamentalist belief that the creator of the universe relayed Absolute Truth to another prophet, Muhammad, who then memorialized that Absolute Truth in literal form in what we now call the Koran. Although these religious beliefs alone would normally be considered benign, the actions of the mobs certainly were not. Having heard about the disrespectful burning by Jones of their holy book, some of the Afghans felt justified, if not obliged, in reacting with violence and slaughter.
A secularist might be tempted, in the face of these events, to make a broad indictment of all religion, but to be fair we must acknowledge that such a reaction would be overly simplistic. Events such as these, when analyzed thoroughly, can usually be understood as resulting from complex factors of sociology, psychology, culture, and even economics. Surely, to place all the blame on religion alone would be hasty.
Nevertheless, just as it would be wrong to simplistically attribute the violence entirely to religion, it would be similarly inappropriate to deny the obvious religious connection. Any objective assessment, not just of these events but of religion itself, must seriously ponder the chain of causation that so often leads from religion to irrational violence.
After all, surely no humanist or atheist would consider acting violently if someone burned a copy of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos." We would be puzzled, and no doubt disappointed, that a copy of such a masterpiece was destroyed, but a murderous response would be unthinkable. Shouldn't the same standard apply to those of religious faith?
Unfortunately, in public discussions of religious violence the opinions of humanists and atheists are often dismissed, as if our non-belief prohibits us from accurately understanding the relevant issues. But ironically, if one analyzes the problem of religious violence thoroughly, the question of whether God exists is usually irrelevant. The problem is not God-belief itself, but the much bolder assertion by religious institutions that this Supreme Being has actually spoken to their particular ancient prophets.
All of the Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - claim that the creator of the universe, apparently feeling communicative for just a few moments of "His" eternal existence, decided to relay to ancient men Absolute Truth, orders from above that the rest of humanity should respect and/or obey for the rest of time.
It is this revelation-based aspect of the Abrahamic religions, the claim that Absolute Truth has been revealed to their particular ancient prophets, that makes them most dangerous. After all, once one has access to Absolute Truth, aren't any means of defending it justified?
Never mind that these Absolute Truths unambiguously forbid such things as eating shellfish, doing weekend yard work, or sitting next to a woman who is menstruating. Or that, read literally, scriptures clearly condone slavery, rape and murder. Never mind that wars have been waged and countless lives have been lost fighting over whose ancient men really received the True Word of God.
And of course, the futile but lethal theological debates continue even today, as the bloody events in Afghanistan demonstrate. The disagreements have little to do with the existence of God, but everything to do with claims of communication with "Him," of whose holy books contain "accurate" divine revelation.
Little wonder that the growing population of humanists, atheists, agnostics, and nonreligious Americans sometimes has difficulty taking these theological debates seriously. Secular individuals sitting on the sidelines can only watch the arguments and the resulting carnage, wondering whether rational thinking will ever prevail.
Text copyright 2011 Dave Niose
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Humanism is a post-theological alternative to traditional religion. For more, see this article.