Wednesday, June 3, 2015

When IS it the Fault of Religion?

One of the standard behaviors of religious zealots whenever some atrocity is performed in the name of their faith is to try and distance themselves from the criminals.  Christians bomb an abortion clinic?  Well, then you get the typical "they don't represent Christianity" and "no true Christian would do that!" and so on.  Muslim terrorists suicide-bomb a bus?  You hear the classic talk of "Islam is a religion of peace" and all the usual garbage.  It makes some sense that less criminally insane believers want to create some distance between themselves and the disgraces to humankind that commit endless atrocities in the name of religion.

From the outside, it is relatively easy to put the blame on religion for every crime its followers commit...  especially considering that most if not all such examples can be traced to actual screeds within their respective scriptures.  The most common defense, though, is to pretend those edicts aren't actually there and just focus on the good bits.  Does Christianity endorse slavery?  "Ummm...  uuuuhhh...  Love thy neighbor!"  What about murdering any and all dissenters?  "Uuuh....  Turn the other cheek!"  There are times, though, when the nastier bits aren't disavowed, of course, such as whenever LGBT matters come into play.  That's where religion is on the right track, of course.  Suuuuure.

Reza Aslan has frequently made the point that people put their own values into scripture rather than drawing from it.  He's technically right on this with regards to the more moderate majority, but I don't know if I would say that this is universally true.  More recently, he has been on the kick of saying that if we condemn religion for its harms, it is only fair to also credit religion for every good act done in the name of faith.  Well, to be fair, I would say that this form of the point, more than anything, elucidates that things can be a little more nuanced.  There is the famous quip by Steven Weinberg, that "with or without religion, you have have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."  But if people are actually just projecting their own values on religion, then where does religion come in in making the good do evil?

This is where we have to start parsing what actually happens when someone projects their own values on scripture.  Take for instance, homophobia.  Without religion, you would most certainly have quite a large contingent of people who would be averse to, or even repulsed by the concept of homosexuality.  What religion brings to the table is that the very same people one person might find repulsive, another person would characterize as an abomination and/or an "affront unto God," or someone destined to "burn in Hell," worthy of eternal torture for the crime of being who they are.  The former attitude on its own could result in someone not wanting to associate with LGBT individuals...  perhaps even support legislation that minimizes LGBT rights... but the latter gives a lot more room for enmity to accumulate by creating a framework that justifies even the worst and most violent expressions of hatred.

When right wing Republicans start connecting their faith to subjects like gay marriage specifically, it's a little bit weaker to connect the faith itself since all of the scriptural references to homosexuality are about simply being gay, whereas marriage is never addressed at all.  That said, there is a large volume dedicated to very parochial and largely deplorable attitudes about relationships between men and women and marriage in general has a prominent position there.  Gay marriage, being a proposition that falls outside of that circle, is therefore a foreign idea, and all foreign concepts are inherently evil by definition according to most any religion.  So, this is an example where I'd say it's more pure bigotry, and less religion...  or is it?  There's a certain point where someone may begin by projecting their own values onto religion, but then over time, the religion itself becomes the sole crutch on which the value stands.  More insidiously, the religion becomes the tool by which the attitudes are spread.  One bigot who projects his/her disgusting values onto scripture will use scripture to convince other people who aren't otherwise bigots to be bigots.  And it works because people of faith impute unto it an importance for which it is infinitely unworthy.

Conversely, when right wing Republicans start connecting "Christian values" with arguments against gun control, that's where it's plainly obvious they're just full of crap.  Christianity has nothing whatsoever to say about gun rights!  Even Jainism, which is traditionally viewed as staunchly nonviolent, contains screeds which are more relevant to gun ownership rights.  While generally anti-violence, Jainism still encourages the use of lethal force in the interest of self-defense and/or defense of family/home/friends/etc.  By comparison, Christianity contains little, if anything to that effect.  Taking up arms is something you do at the behest of your god rather than any other reason.  But again, most people of faith don't actually know that much about their own faith.  It's just a ballast they don't know well enough to remove because they've been trained into it.  As such, if you connect something to faith, believers will believe just about anything.  This is what Weinberg was alluding to in his quote.

Even beyond that, there are countless issues where religion itself and the nature of its powerful language inspires a shift in the way people think...  or exercise a complete lack thereof.  One of the easiest examples I've often used (and I've mentioned it before on the blog) is the example of the sanctified states of cows in Hinduism.  The reality here is that for a very long time, especially prior to industrialization, cows proved to be extremely valuable as livestock, whether it be as beasts of burden, sources of dairy products (and India still consumes more dairy than the rest of the world combined last I saw), or fuel for heating/cooking (cow dung burns quite slowly and at a relatively low temperature).  Moreover, raising hundreds of cows for beef proved to effectively get less value out of each individual cow than you could get by raising a handful of cows for various purposes.  It is less of an issue where arable land is plentiful and modern agriculture and GMOs raise efficiencies of scale by orders of magnitude, but that wasn't really the case in ancient times for any civilization.  This is also related to why so many castes in Hinduism are strictly vegetarian (i.e. fewer resources needed per capita if you're not also feeding large livestock populations raised explicitly for food).  All that sounds quite reasonable, right?  Well, of course, Hinduism doesn't express it that way.  Instead, it says cows are sacred...  It doesn't say that vegetarianism is more resource-efficient under the circumstances.  It says that vegetarianism purifies the soul and prevents evil babies (yes, seriously).  It's the sort of thing that leads to an unquestioning "hands-off" approach, along with a massive array of ritual nonsense consecrated to otherwise practical concerns.  This is the sort of anti-thought attitude that can only be the fault of religion.

This is also part of the reason why I often say that whether someone goes into a STEM field or not, everybody in the world ought to be at least STEM-literate.  The biggest thing it does is that it changes the way you think about things.  Religion technically does that, too, but invariably for the worse.  The key to the effectiveness of science is not just the method itself, but the principles of rational thought which are implicit in how it works.  Often times, the key to understanding that lies not only in the amassed knowledge we've gained over the centuries, but in how they came to be known.  Sure, the frontiers of understanding in the modern state of any STEM field is far beyond the layperson, but having an idea of how these fields operate and why they work gets you close enough to being able to glean that there are valid foundations behind them.  It changes the way you look at things and puts a certain sensibility behind it.  It drives you towards asking questions before ascribing any assumed inference (e.g. "magic man dunnit"), and more importantly, ask questions that make sense.

But there is another flaw that one absolutely must blame on religion, and further still, on the community of people who ascribe to a given religion.  It is perfectly understandable to think that the more pernicious material in the scripture doesn't apply to you, or that it isn't something that you accept...  but the problem is that someone will!  The community at large will do their best to divorce themselves from the extreme elements, but in doing so, they will also give them room to spread their extreme wings.  It does not matter that the extremists are a minority if you do nothing to prevent their existence.  Take for instance, the concept of Jihad in Islam.  One interpretation of it is that it is the battle against one's own internal sense of doubt towards the faith.  The other, more despicable interpretation is that it is a struggle to eliminate doubters of Islam across humanity.  The more peaceful majority of Muslims profess that the latter interpretation is wrong.  Nonetheless, the latter interpretation happens, often to disastrous results.  If the interpretation is so wrong, give me one good reason why the text cannot be made more explicitly clear.  Oh, but how can you change the word of Allah?  If the word of Allah is so perfect, then it shouldn't be possible to have flawed interpretations, and therefore sanctifying it is necessarily unacceptable.  Lack of specificity where necessary is unequivocally a flaw.  If you want to pretend that the word itself is perfect, but that humans are imperfect, resulting in the proneness to faulty understanding, then that only proves that said "perfect" word is not suitable for humans.  Either way, you're not coming out ahead.

Show me the Christian who says that the Bible should be modified to prevent anyone from killing gays or bombing abortion clinics.  Show me the Muslim who says that the hadiths should be modified to mitigate the risks of murder over cartoons.  Show me the Hindu who says that the Vedanta concept of people having a "role in life" should be amended to put an end to caste bigotry.  Show me the people of whichever religion you want to talk about who says it's worth changing scripture to make sure people don't kill their kids by believing in faith healing over actual medical care.  Not taking this effort betrays a painful hypocrisy with regards to any religious atrocity.  Nothing can change the fact that there are verses in scripture that are positively abhorrent, and they will exacerbate existing negative values in certain individuals.  If you do not take the time to eliminate and/or alter those edicts so that they don't throw down fuel to transform a spark of hatred into a roaring inferno, then you are ultimately saying that you never gave a damn.  You're not willing to do anything to actually prevent religious atrocity.  You're just willing to say "I didn't do it."

Well, here is my message to all religious people.  You did do it.  You support, encourage, exalt, evangelize, and demand respect for a belief system through which these sorts of atrocious outcomes are inevitable.  You preserve the state of religion as it is, giving purchase to the extreme elements, and divert attention when the roof caves in.  You induce an air of complacency around the "minority" who do the harm by willfully ignoring and doing nothing whatsoever about the very source of those extreme ideas.  You favor the preservation of ancient screeds which espouse disgusting moral values in addition to not-even-the-least-bit-unique positive values over adaptation of morals to a new age in which social dynamics are light years apart from the era in which said scriptures are likely to have originated.  You consider the purity of even the most deplorable edicts to be more important than the consequences they entail in the wrong hands.  When presented with examples to demonstrate that your holy books are not the fluffy bunny rainbow peacenik principles you claim them to be, you would rather redefine words to pretend it can't possibly mean anything bad than to actually acknowledge that you're full of crap.  If you really want to claim that your religion is so great and kind and warm and friendly and doesn't lead to all sorts of horrible outcomes ...  Eliminate every last word that isn't kind, warm, or friendly.  Eliminate every lack of specificity that gives room for extreme interpretations.  Eliminate every faulty line of thinking and leave only the good bits.  Eliminate all of scripture that encourages ideas and behavior completely anathema to reality.  If you can't do that, don't dare tell me that you personally feel any sense of tragedy over any of the atrocities committed by religious extremists.  You don't.  You are an enabler to the worst religion has to offer, and you don't even have the capacity to give a damn.