President Obama made a speech about ISIS (referring to them as ISIL) in response to the horrific murder of journalist James Foley by a British Jihadist back in September (2014):
“ISIL speaks for no religion… and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt…. we will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. May God bless and keep Jim’s memory. And may God bless the United States of America…Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim…. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way…. May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America. “
Really? No religion teaches people to massacre innocents? Perhaps president Obama is right here, if he’s willing to concede to the idea that “innocence” is entirely subjective and in the eye of the religious believer, which I doubt he would concede. And really? He thinks (or merely says) that “no just God would stand for what they did yesterday?” Either Obama is unintentionally making the case that the God of so many believers is in fact unjust, or that the God of these believers simply doesn’t exist. For I find it incredibly hard to believe that president Obama isn’t familiar with three of the most violent religions in human history: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Old Testament of the Christian’s bible, which is also the strictly Jewish contribution to that book, and the Islamic Qu’ran and various Hadiths (i.e. purported prophetic traditions of Mohammed) are riddled with violence and violent commandments including those urging the believer to kill the infidel, that is, the unbeliever (a group that should be included in the innocents that Obama refers to in his speech), and to kill apostates for leaving the faith. Islam in particular also highly emphasizes the glory of martyrdom with a 72 virgin reward in paradise for believers that have died (only for men though, women get simply one man that will satisfy them), and this of course can fuel other behavior (terrorism and otherwise) that often kills “infidels” and “apostates” in the process of that sought after martyrdom. The hostility toward unbelievers and apostates within much of Islamic tradition also explains fairly well why most of ISIS’s victims have been Muslims — simply because there are several Islamic sects living near one another and one sect of Islam doesn’t recognize the other sect(s) as being legitimate followers of Islam (thus they are either seen as infidels, or apostates if they converted from one sect to another).
If we look at the common root of all three of these religions, starting with Abraham, we hear the story of a man that is willing to slice the throat of his own child in the name of religious faith. We find many instances of mass genocide, rape, enslavement, violence, and many other morally reprehensible acts that were condoned or ordained by the God of these faiths. We find that adulterers and people that decided to work on the Sabbath were stoned to death. We find cannibalistic threats of punishment for disobedience. We find homosexuals getting annihilated. We find a God that inflicts upon all Egyptians ten plagues including the death of all their first born children. We even find a God that kills just about every land animal and human being on the entire planet by drowning them (except for Noah, his family, and a couple of each land animal as the story goes). Needless to say, we find countless atrocities of killing innocents by the hand of God or instigated or commanded by this God through his chosen people in these religion’s scriptural texts. Were those that died considered innocent in the eyes of their God and thus in the eyes of those believers? Of course not. Thus, in this sense and this sense only, president Obama was correct to say that “No religion condones the killing of innocents”. Unfortunately, this just illustrates that what Obama said was utterly meaningless.
Is the president really being serious here? Could he really be that unfamiliar with all of this basic scriptural and religious background knowledge to make a ridiculous claim like that? Could he really be that unfamiliar with the countless lives lost over the years in the name of religion, including the Crusades, the Holocaust, or the many conquests of Islam, including the most brutal that took place throughout India (from the 12th to 16th century CE)? Could he have missed the fact that the U.S. civil war itself was not only a result of the south fighting for state’s rights, but that it was also largely a result of many Christian southerners defending their “rights” to own slaves based on their straightforward interpretation of biblical scripture? Surely these travesties had multiple causes behind them including geo-political, economic, and other social factors, but to deny the role of religion and specific religious beliefs in motivating much of that behavior would be simply absurd. Then again, perhaps the president is merely in denial, asserting the delusional view that many people wish was the case, that is, the idea that all religions are equally peaceful, and that violence just comes from other non-religious sources of bad ideas. However, how could he possibly square this delusion with the particularly liberal recognition that people are products of their environment, and thus, one’s behavior is affected by every environmental influence? What exactly will have to happen before everyone is willing to accept the fact that all ideas (including religious ideas) lead to behavioral consequences? In fact, religious ideas (when taken seriously) are probably one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful motivations for a person’s behaviors. What seems to be most implicit in Obama’s delusional oration is the fear of criticizing religious ideas in particular.
Why are so many people so afraid of or uncomfortable with discussing and criticizing religion or religious beliefs? In any other domain of our lives, rational inquiry and discourse are required and happily utilized to continue to progress intellectually as individuals and as an increasingly globalized society. Every day of our lives we demand evidence and/or persuasive reasons for believing what we’re told by others including how to behave (with more extraordinary claims requiring more extraordinary levels of evidence and reasoning). We discuss and debate issues openly and without disdain largely to find clarity in each others viewpoints, and to determine whether or not, in light of those arguments and evidence, we should change any of those viewpoints (and the behaviors they promote) for the good of our own lives and the lives of others. It is primarily when the topic shifts to religion, and the various religious beliefs contained within, do many people start to cower away from an open discourse as well as a critical and rational analysis, thus abandoning their everyday moral values and whatever honesty and integrity they may have otherwise. As a result, religion has now become one of the only (if not the only) existing domains where irrational, illogical, and often downright dangerous ideas can remain out of the reach of public scrutiny and criticism. This is especially unfortunate since, as I mentioned earlier, religious beliefs in particular are some of the most powerful influences on people’s behavior that exists. Thus, it is perhaps one of the most important domains to be criticized.
So why are religion and religious ideas so often seen as exempt from criticism? I think this has likely been largely fueled by the fact that ideas such as cultural and moral relativism and the tolerance of cultural diversity have been used by many in order to condone or equally respect any belief whatsoever, which is obviously ridiculous. There are certainly some beneficial concepts contained within the cultural or moral relativistic schools of thought, including the idea that there are different ways of looking at the world and living one’s life, that there isn’t only one absolute way that is “correct” or “right”, that there are different ethical frameworks that prioritize different moral goals, and that it is important to examine beliefs and customs both as an outsider and within the cultural context that they are found and implemented. However, the fact that we shouldn’t try to see the world through some limited, absolutist lens does not imply that all ideas and beliefs are of equal merit, nor that they will all produce the same consequences. To think that a cultural context can ever save a belief system from any criticism whatsoever or from the behavioral consequences that they produce is simply ludicrous, especially if we are to adopt them with a specific moral or societal goal in mind, such as the goal of increasing our physical and psychological well being. In order to increase our well being (and for the long term), our ideas must be rooted in reality and must correspond to the world around us, even if that perspective changes over time in light of new scientific discoveries and philosophical discourse. This allows us to properly examine ideas and beliefs in terms of the consequences they have on our behavior and how that behavior relates to our ultimate goals. Thus, religious ideology can’t be an exception to this rule or methodology, nor can any other ideology for that matter. All ideas and beliefs have an effect on our behavior and the sooner people accept that, the sooner we can start accurately assessing the real dangers that we face and discuss how to deal with some of these dangerous ideas, and the people that believe and promote them. Furthermore, we can then work to abolish those beliefs that are dangerous, and continue to move forward and substantially improve the quality of everyone’s lives in the process.
It certainly hasn’t helped that many liberals have been exacerbating this problem by unjustifiably labeling critics of various religious beliefs as intolerant bigots or racists. There have been many instances of this defamatory labeling, most recently against some prominent liberals and atheists that have criticized the dangers of Islam and its inherently violent ideologies, and this labeling has been entirely unwarranted, since these critics haven’t been criticizing any particular race of people nor any inert forms of cultural diversity, but rather are criticizing quite obviously bad and dangerous ideas that are prevalent within a particular religious ideology. These religious beliefs that are being criticized are those that have only served to inhibit the well being of humanity, by inhibiting many important humanistic principles including the push for equality for all races, all sexual orientations, equal rights for women (including women’s reproductive rights), and also the push for democracy, free thought and rational skepticism.
The irony is that liberals have had a long history of advocating many of these noble principles, and the liberals that are being critical of the critics advocating those principles (by those critics pointing out the religious beliefs that conflict with said principles) are basically abandoning their own values — likely because they’re simultaneously employing an irrational interpretation of cultural relativism. Admittedly, this irrational interpretation or implementation of cultural relativism certainly has many admirable intentions behind it (such as increasing the tolerance for cultural diversity), but promoting a tolerance for diversity can be (and has already been in many cases) accomplished without abandoning the very universal criticism that has been necessary for the humanistic progress we’ve made thus far. In the case of president Obama and what I heard in his speech, I realize that most of his motivations are political, as he doesn’t want to alienate the large number of religious voters or his approval ratings, and he probably doesn’t want to upset the large number of Muslims that aren’t a direct threat to our safety (not a threat at this time anyway). It is also likely that his speech reflects his own mistaken beliefs regarding cultural relativism that have been propagating around many liberal circles (unfortunately).
It’s time for everyone to embrace a world where we can speak openly and honestly about any topic, so we can solve many more of the problems we face, rather than simply remain in denial, potentially putting ourselves and many innocent lives in danger. Not all people have belief systems that are amenable to reason (in fact most religious belief systems aren’t amenable to reason), and so one must face the harsh reality that in some cases the only option is to detain people with certain dangerous beliefs such that they no longer pose a threat to everyone else in society (just as we currently do with violent criminals). If they can’t be reasoned with nor detained for the protection of the populace, then they may have to be eliminated through other militaristic means. Personally, I consider myself to be a pacifist, a humanist, and a progressive in many ways. However, I’m also pragmatic and realistic, and understand that if there are people that can’t be reasoned out of a dangerous ideology, and that are willing to kill everyone around them that stands in their way — those people need to be stopped in one way or another, if everyone else expects to live happily, let alone survive. I’d always opt for the most peaceful and diplomatic solutions whenever possible, but once those options have been exhausted, then it becomes a matter of humanists fighting for happiness, cooperation, and well being, versus those that couldn’t care less about human happiness, cooperation, or well being. In that case, I think humanists need to do what is necessary to survive. For if they fail to survive, then the violent, totalitarian, theocratic ideology will eventually monopolize the ideology of whichever human beings remain.
On the bright side, I’m also hopeful that even if religions don’t disappear altogether, though I think they will eventually based on the current trends of increasing numbers of agnostics and atheists, many dangerous religious ideologies can continue to be reformed as they have been in the past so that violence and aggression in the name of faith can be reduced. To be sure, reformation of religion can only go so far if one is to continue to take the scriptural texts (especially as a whole) seriously. In cases where the message coming from religious scriptures is quite clearly dangerous, then the inability to “reinterpret” one’s way out of the moral predicament leaves only two options: 1) change the text, or 2) no longer abide by all the text. Unfortunately most religious believers have a fundamental ideological barrier that forbids them from changing the text (if only these texts could be amended over time like the U.S. Constitution has been). That leaves the second option. In fact, religious “moderates”, including those in the Abrahamic religions have done just that, by ignoring at least some of the commandments and teachings that are heinous. It’s a good start either way, but it has taken centuries to accomplish with a lot of blood spilled to get there. In any case, we can’t make these kinds of positive changes very effectively (if at all) until everyone is willing to start talking about them critically. Let’s do so.