Saturday, March 7, 2015

Belief, Violence, and Denial

An article worth reading: Sam Harris on extremists and apologists

I am convinced that otherwise intelligent decent folks end up becoming de facto apologists for religious violence.

How does that happen?

I suggest there are multiple factors in play. First, most of us either know personally, or know of, persons who belong to one of these groups and also exemplify moderation. This creates a gnarly thought branch.  We are confronted with the idea that not everyone who is a member of said group is an extremist. Further, being decent compassionate and open-minded humans, we have no wish to offend the reasonable members of the group by unintentionally lumping them in with the loopy members. Further yet, if the group to which we refer are Muslims (and in the early part of the twenty first century, this is too often the case) many people have a perfectly reasonable fear of offending Muslims- be they loopy or reasonable.

No explanation for trepidation is necessary with regard to the loopy ones. As to the moderates, they divide into two camps. The poor folks who are, mostly, like everyone else and simply wish to get along with others and thrive in the world and the ones who are one news article away from joining their loopy cousins. Now, here is where things get dicey. Non-Muslims simply have no viable way of sorting them out. And, rightly or wrongly, we perceive them as not adequately defining themselves. This leaves us on the horns of a dilemma.

On one hand, we fear the less moderate non-Muslims will simply take matters into their own hands and target Muslims indiscriminately. Need I mention this is a very bad idea on its face, beginning with the vigilante nature of such action? On the other hand we have those who, so wish to avoid judging, (and here’s the tricky bit) even in the presence of overwhelming evidence, they refuse to call out the nutters for fear of offending the others. It is understandable. Folks do not wish to have any spill-over from their judgment taint the good folks. I couldn’t be more sympathetic to that cause. However, what if this thinking results in our failure, on a collective level, to say what is true and act on what is true? In short, what if our apologist attitudes result in worsening the situation in every way? What happens when we fail to see the world clearly, say bravely what we see, and, when the consequences are potentially dire, act appropriately? I suggest it likely emboldens the undesirables on both sides. That is, non-Muslims who are all worked up because they feel like nobody is taking leadership may be emboldened to act out lawlessly. On the flip side of the coin, those who would do us harm perceive our mealymouthed vacillation as opportunity.

All that said, we haven’t yet dared to approach the real prickly bit. Would anyone care to hazard a guess on that score?

Here is what Sam Harris (among others) has said and, more disturbing for many, what he implies. Simply stated, the words in the Qur'an call out to be interpreted in the strictest sense. Why? To believers, these are the words of the Supreme Being. As such, the rules and admonitions are intended to be eternal. If that were not sufficient, the words appear within a highly charged context. This is intentional. The author, regardless if he is perceived to be human or a prophet of God, unapologetically intended for the words to fall as heavily weighted as possible upon the mind of the listener. On this point few, on any side of the question, would disagree. So, we come to the more disturbing bit. Mr. Harris could not, by rational argument, fail to include in his assessments the other books which are universally included in the canon of religious texts. That is to say, the scriptures associated with Judaism and Christianity. As any student knows, from the study of the three major religions to emerge from deserts of the Middle East, they are all related. The history on this is well known and anyone, regardless of formal training, can perform a simple internet search to familiarize themselves with the overlap.

So, what does it all mean?

Because humans have a tendency to be parochial and shortsighted, it is easy to wag our fingers at the “others”. In our time, Muslims make an easy target. Our President recently scratched the surface of an unsettling truth when he referenced the so-called Crusades. In fact, any of us with the shallowest knowledge of history could have cited any number of examples. What kind of examples? Well, basically, examples where the people who were considered to be the most righteous, the most pious, the most devout believers, the ones most likely to have a literal interpretation of their scriptures, acted very, very badly. 

Okay, so it is fair to say that such conflicts are, to some degree, bound up with politics and the acquisition of resources (usually someone else’s). And, it is also fair to say that, the stated justification for the heinous barbarism was the advancement of the religious agenda of the aggressors of either or both sides. For any that cared to read all the way to the end, No! This is not about some prejudice or dislike of Muslims. And, while I’m about it, I am offended if that is what you thought.