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The Biggest Threats We Face From Conservative Religion

Our economy runs on the fossil fuels of oil, gas and coal, but our society runs on the fossil fuel of religion.

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Faced with these facts, some people have gone too far by stereotyping all Muslims as a monolithic bloc united in violent opposition to the West. In fact, despite all the damage that terrorists have wrought in America and Europe, people in primarily Muslim nations have suffered at least as much, if not more, from the evils of Islamic fundamentalism.

Consider the fanatical Islamic regime called the Taliban that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until they were deposed in 2001 (though they've been making a violent resurgence). Afghanistan under the Taliban was a brutal theocracy, a state of religious terror both for men and, especially, for women. The Taliban was infamous for forcing women to wear the burqa, a black shroud covering their entire bodies, so that men didn't see any body part of a woman to whom they weren't related. Refusal to wear this stifling, dehumanizing garment in public was punishable by imprisonment, beatings, torture and death. Women under the Taliban were forbidden to attend school past the age of eight, to work outside the home, or indeed to leave their home for any reason -- even to seek medical care -- if not accompanied by a male relative. Even then, women were forbidden to see or be treated by male doctors, even in case of a life-or-death medical emergency. In this cruel and savage society, women were little more than prisoners in their own homes.

This isn't to say that life under the Taliban was much better for men. Under the fundamentalist Islamic law code of sharia, human rights violations such as arbitrary imprisonment, torture and execution were common. Crimes included having too short a beard or wearing shorts in public. The barbaric punishments for breaking this law included public flogging, amputation of limbs, being buried alive, and execution by stoning, in which the condemned is bludgeoned to death by crowds wielding heavy, jagged rocks.

Saudi Arabia, America's oil-rich ally, enforces a version of sharia almost as strict as the Taliban's. All religions other than the kingdom's fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam are banned. Women are forced to wear head-to-toe coverings in public, and can't legally work, drive or travel without the permission of a man. In one infamous incident from 2002, the mutaween, the Saudi religious police, prevented schoolgirls from escaping a burning building because they weren't "properly" dressed to appear in public. Fifteen died in the flames.

Islam isn't the only religion that's been used to justify violence. Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, often thought of as peaceful faiths, have inspired their share of conflict and bloodshed. But there can be little doubt that next to Islam, the belief system that poses the greatest threat to human liberty and world stability is Christian fundamentalism. In most Western countries, Christianity has lost most of its political power or evolved into more benign forms. But in the United States of America, a belligerent, authoritarian faction of Christian conservatives possesses a great deal of power.

Today's Christian fundamentalists, for the most part, don't pursue their goals through violence as Muslim fundamentalists tend to do. Nevertheless, they're just as committed to their desire to take over society and remake it in their own rigid, theocratic image. Regardless of whether this lust for dominion arises in Christianity, Islam or any other religious tradition, it's equally tyrannical and should be equally abhorrent to freedom-loving people everywhere.

Consider one of the most obvious examples. Contrary to what some people seem to think, marriage isn't an exclusively religious rite but confers many civil benefits: the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital; the right not to testify against one's partner in court; and the right to share health insurance and Social Security benefits, to name a few. There's absolutely no good reason to deny these benefits to anyone in a committed relationship, regardless of their gender. Yet a majority of American states have voted to outlaw same-sex marriage; some have even advocated making it illegal for employers to offer the same benefits to same-sex couples as they do to opposite-sex couples.

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