The Stant Rant: Religion, Extremism, and Creed

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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.

8 thoughts on “The Stant Rant: Religion, Extremism, and Creed

  1. Hmm? Very interesting. It’s definitely something to think about.
    How are you doing, sir? How did I not subscribe to this site before? *slaps hand* I follow blogs, etc. by having new posts drop into my inbox. It’s really the only way. I just signed up for yours and hope to keep an eye on what you’ve got posted here.
    I wasn’t going to say anything, but since I’m here – I finally posted that review I promised. I edited my comments down and posted to Goodreads and Amazon. Hope it helps!
    Cheers, my friend.

    -Jimmy

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    • Thanks, Jimmy! I really appreciate the thoughtful review, and of course your comments on the blog. I’ll try to keep this blog and this site both thoughtful and interesting, to earn its place in everyone’s quite crowded inbox. Thanks for following! 🙂

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  2. Catherine

    For what it’s worth, I’d consider looking at the actions of Japanese folks in WWII as Buddhists behaving badly as pretty weak – Buddhism is one religion among many in Japan, and while it’s almost a given that some of the people were Buddhist, and some might have been fairly devout, I don’t know of cases where the link between people’s religion and actions were particularly overt. Far better to look at the attacks by Buddhists on the Muslim minority in Myanmar now, or the treatment of the Nepali minority in Bhutan.

    (I am not, by any means, arguing that Buddhists don’t behave badly. In fact, quite the opposite – I just think there are better examples. And I try to keep track of some of them, as not infrequently I’ll run across folks who try to tell me that Buddhists don’t go doing this kind of stuff. As a Chan Buddhist – oh, and mostly these folks are Buddhist – I think that’s bullshit.)

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      • The WWII example was state-driven: forced conversion of a conquered people to Buddhism. I chose that example because of the overtly religious nature of the example (i.e., religion played an explicit role). But the other examples you mentioned further confirm the point: that you can find atrocities committed by members of any religion, and by people of no religion at all. To argue from there that Buddhists, or Christians, or Muslims, or anyone else is inherently violent and extreme based on their religion misses the point. And representatives of each religion will quickly point out how theirs is in fact a religion of peace. They are not unjustified in doing so. The root cause of atrocity is deeper and older than religion. It’s fear of someone different from you, fear of someone not “of your tribe.”

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  3. Catherine

    Do you have a pointer on the forced conversions you mention above? I’m much more familiar with Chinese history, but poking around on both Google and scholarly indexes, I’m just not finding much. (Except for the internal “forced conversions” of communists…) Not that there’s any particular lack of Japanese WWII atrocities.

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    • Sure, although I just realized I’m guilty of a gross historical inaccuracy here. The forced worship in the case of the occupation of Korea was Shinto, not Buddhism.

      A quick academic summary: http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/south-korea-japanese-occupation-the-korean-war-and-partition

      Wikipedia for links to references: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korea_under_Japanese_rule

      There have also been several memoirs covering the period, though I can’t remember the titles/authors.

      My apologies, by the way, for the inaccuracy. I hope it’s evident that my intent with this post was quite the opposite of assembling a list of crimes committed in the names of the various religions. What I wanted to do was reframe the conversation to move beyond the fingerpointing that keeps us from looking at the underlying problems.

      Thanks for calling me on this particular example and digging deeper.

      Stant Litore

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      • Catherine

        Oh, that makes a lot more sense. I was aware of the role of Shinto in Japanese nationalism, though not of the forced worship in the Korean occupation. Part of my confusion was that though there are some differences between Buddhism in Korea and Japan, the differences aren’t that great. (I’m a member of a Chan order. I’m currently living in a zendo affiliated with an American Zen group of Japanese derivation. One of my dearest friends is a Seon priest.) In that context, forced conversion would be particularly odd, though certainly not impossible.

        I am entirely in agreement with your thesis – the main reason I try to keep on top of Buddhists behaving badly is that there is a tendency in some American subcultures to romanticize Buddhism and even to present it in contrast with whatever religion is being put down. As I’m personally of the opinion that the most important thing to keep in mind is that we are all human beings, and that atrocities are well documented as being in the repetoire of human beings, I somewhat collect counterexamples. (Frankly, the order I belong to is historically martial – I’m a martial artist and martial arts instructor in this context, actually – and there are no few examples of that martial might being used in ways that are questionable at best.)

        On a purely ethical level, I think it’s rather perilous for us to describe members of some other group to which which we don’t belong as especially likely to commit bad actions, or to describe the people who committed those actions as evil, inhuman, or otherwise entirely incomprehensible and unlike ourselves. As you point out, many atrocities seem to stem from the creation of in-groups and out-groups. Creating more such divisions seems unlike to lessen this tendency.

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