Why Do the Craziest Religious People Get the Most Attention?
There’s no question that religion can have some ugly moral and social consequences. The homophobic and misogynist attitudes of many American Evangelicals come straight out their sacred texts. So do the Islamic concepts of “ dhimmitude” and jihad. So does the Jewish notion of favored bloodlines. So do Mormon and Scientologist recruiting practices. The Bible prescribes the death penalty for thirty six infractions, ranging from childhood disobedience to marital infidelity to witchcraft. The Quran contains over a hundred verses sanctifying the slaughter of infidels in one context or another. I’ve argued in the past that religion disinhibits violence rather than causing it, but in a world of complex causation, one where straws sometimes break the backs of camels, that may be a distinction without a difference. The fact is, putting God’s name on Iron Age morality contributes to Iron Age behavior.
There also can be no question that, in this regard, not all ideologies are created equal. Religions differ in their history, teaching, and priorities, and consequently in how readily they are leveraged to justify oppression or violence. To name this month’s most salient example, Islam’s death penalty for blasphemy, combined with a prohibition of images, means that some Muslims are uniquely likely to flare when testosterone gets ignited by blasphemous pictures. The Onion made this point recently with a graphic cartoon depicting Jesus, Moses, Ganesh, and Buddha engaged in sex, beneath the caption, “No One Murdered Because of This Image.”
That said, over a million Muslims in the U.S., when they heard that pockets of men in Libya and Egypt were rioting over a blasphemous film, declined to do the same. Globally, 1.6 billion Muslims sat home and sympathized with the rioters or with those killed and their loved ones, or simply went about the business of getting their kids fed. The point is that, whatever their sympathies, the percent of people who acted badly was miniscule. By contrast some took the risk of helping. From the standpoint of humanity’s shared moral core, most people of faith are more restrained, humble, and compassionate than the writers of their sacred texts.
Given that Islamophobia is rampant in the U.S. and is often promoted by conservative Christians, many progressives want to deny that bigotry and vengfulness are baked into Islamic texts and traditions. Atheist forums that routinely bash Christianity and Judaism are often strikingly silent or even defensive of Islam as a maligned religious minority. Conservatives, on the other hand, see bigotry and violence as the heart of Islam. Somali-Dutch feminist and atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is despised by many liberals because of her unrelenting criticism of Islamic misogyny. She was welcomed with open arms into the conservative American Enterprise Institute – despite her atheism and feminism – for largely the same reason. The enemy of my enemy . . . .
Both of these positions, that Muslim sacred texts are benign and that they represent the priorities of most believers, deny large swaths of reality. Religions change and evolve along with culture and technology. Yes, they are inherently conservative, codifying roles and rules that have worked for our ancestors, and so they often create a counterweight (for better or worse) against cultural and moral evolution. But they are not static. Most modern day Muslims do not sanction child marriage and beheadings any more than most Christians or Jews agree with the Bible’s endorsement of slavery and animal sacrifice.
But looking at the media you’d never know it. It is ironic that the religionists who have figured out best how to leverage modern media are those whose theologies are most backwards facing – those who fear cultural and spiritual change and who yearn for a never existent past paradise based on some Muslim or Christian or Jewish form of sharia.