More and more often, lately, I’ve been hearing some generalizations levied by otherwise quite sane people — but people who are worried about the violent extremism all around us in our world. I’ve heard statements like these:
- “Explain to me exactly how Islam is a religion of peace.”
- “The world was doing just fine until Christianity screwed it up.”
- “Religion is holding us back as a species.”
Now, not to tread on anyone’s toes, but all of these statements are absurd, and are not substantively any different from claiming that AIDS is a problem because of gay lifestyles, or that America has gone to hell in a handbasket because black people now sit beside white people on the bus, or that all the evils in our world can be attributed to capitalism, or to socialism. All of these statements are an attempt to find a quick and easy answer to a complex problem in a complex world, and all of them represent a refusal to dig into the root causes of our problems.
Let’s look at the facts.
#1. No one religion on earth has a monopoly – or even a majority – on extremism.
Are there not violent extremists who act in the name of nearly all religions on Earth? In the name of Islam, the jihadists in Iran. In the name of Christianity, the pastors in West Africa who burn the faces of “witch children” with acid. In the name of Mormonism, the recently raided commune in which over a hundred women were kept captive. In the name of Shinto, the representatives of the Empire of the Rising Sun who imprisoned or tortured Christian civilians in Korea during WWII or who kidnapped thousands of Korean women for prostitution camps.
(On the flip side, the founding of libraries and schools throughout the earth has been conducted in the name of Islam; MLK’s march on Washington and Mother Teresa’s feeding of the poor in Calcutta were done in the name of Christianity; the Dalai Lama carries on his mission in the name of Buddhism, and so on. All of these people are driven by belief in a “religion of peace.”)
Does this mean that no religion and no secular ideology qualifies as an ideology of peace? Or does it just mean that some of us will use any creed available to justify our fear and our hate for people who appear to be different from us?
#2. Violent extremism happens whether religion is present or not.
Don’t get me wrong – a religious creed can absolutely be used to fan the flames of fear and hate (though it can be used just as effectively to douse fires, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did), and certain types of religious thinking (“black and white” thinking) can promote extremist views and actions. My point here is that any ideological creed can be used in exactly the same way. Adolf Hitler was an atheist who, in 1944, decreed that the Bible on every pulpit in Germany be replaced with his autobiography. He was also an extremist who pinned most of Germany’s woes on the “Jewish problem” and sent millions of Jews to their deaths. Josef Stalin persecuted the religious, Jewish and Christian alike, in Soviet Russia because he believed religion was the “opiate of the masses.” Modern “ecowarriors” mail razor blades to scientists because they have taken an extremist response to an environmentalist creed.
(Added 11.1.2014: Or for a noxious and recent example, consider the Gamergaters who harass, stalk, and threaten women in the name of “ethics in games journalism” or under the banner of “men’s rights.”)
None of these people are religious people, but they have all engaged in acts of violent extremism that appear to be ideologically motivated. One finds violent extremism done in the name of all kinds of ideologies, whether those ideologies are religious, political, cultural, nationalistic, or economic.
Does this mean that religion, atheism, socialism, and environmentalism are all inherently dangerous? Of course not. What it means is that we fall back too easily on black-and-white thinking, that we are more likely to confront those who are different from us with fear than with any other response, and that we use the local ideological creed to take the shame away from our fear, to hoodwink ourselves into thinking that our fear is somehow noble, holy, or in the best interests of humanity, and to justify acting extremely based on our fears.
So what do we do about it?
Well, we can start by not trying to pin the tail on the donkey of some ideology. We should attack the head of the problem. We need to teach our children to value asking questions, to be curious, to listen openly to others, to reach out to those who are different and learn more about them and from them, to think critically and test new ideas, and to adopt a creed, when they do, as something that motivates and inspires their action, that drives hope and faith and a vision for the future, but not something that restricts their thinking.
The solutions lie in education, parenting, critical thinking, and listening skills – not in scapegoating whatever creed we happen to feel is most repugnant to us.
After all, that’s exactly what the extremists who scare us are doing.