FIRST, A LITTLE THEORETICAL HISTORY (I THINK)
Religion is a messy business. Most of them have their origin in tribal societies. Tribes have a few mores: don’t mix with people outside the tribe; suspect everyone not in the tribe; our tribe is good, other tribes are bad; change is chaos so the old ways are best; tow the line; and we are favored by the gods. Sound familiar? Okay.
Religion, like any other human thought system, evolves over time. It “drifts”. What was once a tribal society becomes interconnected. Religion changes to suit the society, because people within those societies make up the religion. What was once a god that commanded people to utterly annihilate a town down beyond cattle-level becomes a god that commands people to love each other.
So in a more secular society religion starts to include others. Perhaps believers think that maybe others aren’t directly evil; only obliquely evil, but to be pitied. Maybe some will believe that others just as important as anyone else. However, since what came before is sacred and kept the tribe together, one thought doesn’t erase the other. It gets layered on. Which is why in places like the Bible you see “love everyone” and “kill the unbeliever” in the same book.
And this is why many holy books are a chaotic mess; or very unorganized, with many coherent thoughts that are directly countered in other verses. Books like the Bible and the Quran are like geological layers, with strata overlaying from different eras in that religion’s history.
SO HERE’S WHAT I THINK
I think that religions more or less behave themselves now because of secular education, the need to work with each other, and the separation of church and state. Science directly contradicts SOME (only some) of the ideas in holy books, so many believers now chalk the writings up to “allegory” rather than historical event. With the decline of biblical literalism, it becomes easier to pick and choose. So in cases like this, it’s easy to ignore the “kill the unbeliever” part and concentrate on the “love everyone” part. We live in an integrated, secular society, and religion by and large integrates as well.
Sure, Atheists such as myself are bound to hell according to most believers. But my religious friends don’t tell me that because it’s rude. Please note that: most believers in our society care about being too rude.
There’s no need to say which end of the stick the extremists of any religion pick up. But it’s not always a conscious choice. A great number of the Islamic extremists come from tribal (or near-tribal) societies. They don’t have to work with people of other thought systems. They are insular. Often, their villages have been destroyed and religion isn’t the root cause. Many Islamic terrorists can’t quote the Quran chapter and verse. They have simpler motives: revenge, survival, fear, or feeling caught up in an important goal that they have no way of understanding.
After all, it takes less effort to turn a man into a monster than it does to turn a monster into a man.
BUCKLE DOWN FOR THE CONTRADICTIONS
This is why it is true to say that religion DOES support extremism and that religion DOESN’T support extremism. Since these holy books are a tangled mess, a person can choose which part to follow. They can follow the “love” part and ignore the “hate” part, or visa versa.
The thing about extremism: people can be extremists in any thought system, not just religion. A good example is the former Soviet Union, where true believers in the system hounded millions of peasants to fit into Stalin’s collectivist ideas (which weren’t based on any scientific proof), resulting in the deaths of millions of people due to starvation. Extremists were able to do that without a single hesitation. Atheists can be extremists. ANYONE can be an extremist.
SIDE NOTE: I would, however, argue that the Soviets who did this were not Atheists. Their fervor was generally in the belief that Stalin was infallible. Stalin was a god. Theism is not limited to the Judeo-Christian concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful god.
This is why I am VERY suspicious of “idealism”. I sympathize more with pragmatism. To me, an idealist is a person who will do unspeakable things to make their ideals a reality. Extremists are idealists: “if only THE OTHERS weren’t here or were converted, then this would be an ideal world!”
Hate is the root of it all; hatred of the “other”. If I were so inclined, I could easily point my finger anywhere else and say, “there… those people are the problem with everything.” In other words, the people who are not like me. In essence, tribalism. It has even infected Atheism. This is because Atheists are people, too.
Some people I know aliken religion to a virus. The problem is that once you see it as a virus, you begin to hate the carriers who are infecting others willfully. Here comes the hate again, and hate stagnates a person. Even if one believes in evolution, hate prevents them from evolving. They’re just another monkey flinging their own poop.
Hate is easy. It turns off thought. It makes the complex simple. It smooths the rough road. It gives direction. It gives power and self-importance. It makes one feel special, like they are gifted with the one true perspective and that all others who disagree are, at best, bad. It is also usually wrong, ignores reality, and brooks no second-guessing.
I say hate all you want to, but don’t pretend your hated is superior to other people’s hatred. You may have good reasons to hate, but so does everyone if they look hard enough.
Please Note: Personal Belief Here, Put Away The Stones
Now my personal belief is that religion has done inestimable harm throughout history. But it has also helped humanity accomplish great things. Religion is a support for the infancy of humanity, but I believe we are growing up. I believe that we are entering a stage where religion is no longer the one thing we NEED to bind people together; that there is an impending divorce between religion and ethics and we are realizing we have a lot more in common than our shared beliefs. We are all, eventually, leaving our tribes. This is my personal belief/hope, but I don’t impose it on others.
Which is why I cannot HATE people who believe in gods. It is, in fact, why I can LOVE them. I have more in common with them than a simple belief system. Because religion is irrelevant to me, I can make it irrelevant to how I interact with strangers and the people I love.
SYNOPSIS – OR, HERE IS WHERE I TRY TO WRAP UP THIS MESS
Does religion encourage people to cause harm? Undisputedly. If a person is so disposed, they’ll find a chapter and verse that encourages them to destroy. Hatred has to be taught, and if it is smack dab in the middle of the word of a god, how much easier is it to give hatred the patina of authority?
Does religion encourage people to love each other? Definitely. Love is natural and must be encouraged. If some people feel they need an external authority to get there, it’s not my business how they learn to love as long as they do.
If a friend said to me, “Wearing this fuzzy, purple top hat with the lit sparkler allows god to beam her love into my head, thus making me more inclined to help the poor, encourage unconditional love, and show mercy to all”, my response would be, “That’s absurd, and please never take off that hat.”
Personally, I don’t need gods to tell me the plainly obvious: people are complicated, and most people are just trying to do the best they can. Most people are seeking the “truth”, most people are a little bit empty and sad inside, and everyone wants to be loved.