Nothing could be less rational or humane than self-righteously taking the lives of innocent people in the name of unknowable, imaginary gods. But the problem of religious extremism goes much deeper than that.
We worry way too much about religious terrorism and way too little about religious fundamentalism, especially the Muslim variety. They are not the same thing.
To begin with, “terrorism” is too narrow a term to describe what some fundamentalist believers create. The more precise and comprehensive descriptor is “religious violence.” Sunni v. Shiia, Jew v. Muslim, Muslim v. Hindu, Catholic v. Protestant—the struggles between these groups should not be reduced to “terrorism” or understood only as the work of “radicals” or “extremists.” The actual terrorists—responsible for what happened in New York, London, Madrid, Bali, Mumbai, and other places—are few in number. The number of people who have been willing to wage more conventional forms of violence against other human beings because of religious differences is far greater.
Yet even when we consider what all the perpetrators of religious violence do we still identify only a very small part of the problem religious fundamentalism presents. And typically the enormous problem of fundamentalism is dismissed as evil acts brought on by a few crazy guys—terrorists—men who don’t represent the “true” Islam (or whatever faith). Even Barack Obama has made that mistake.
No, we have to look much deeper and be willing to deal with what we discover.
Lack of tolerance—especially harsh discrimination against women and homosexuals—lies at the core of ignorance, incivility, and resistance to modernity. It is the patriarchal foundation upon which the other forms of violence rest.
Forms of discrimination against women have been well chronicled. Religion not only limits the potential of women to participate in modern civil and cultural life fully, it places severe constraints on their ability to communicate and express themselves. (I take up this issue at some length in a chapter on “Human Expression” in Culture-on-Demand).
I want to focus here instead on the impact of fundamentalist religion on the rights of homosexuals. This photo shows two teenagers in Iran being hung because they are gay. With respect to gay rights, consider three events that took place within the space of a few days in late December:
First, Pope Benedict reinforced the Catholic Church’s ignorance of science by calling homosexual behavior a “violation of the natural order.” According to him, the Church must fight in order to keep man from “destroying himself” through same sex marriage and homosexual behavior.
There is no “natural order” in the biological world. Homosexuality runs rampant throughout the animal world and is not “unnatural.” Same sex marriage poses no threat whatsoever to heterosexual marriage—to the contrary it stabilizes relationships and helps build healthy societies.
Second, the Roman Catholic Church and the Organization of the Islamic Conference along with 60 nation states came out against a United Nations declaration seeking to decriminalize homosexuality around the world. Homosexuality is banned in 80 countries and carries the death penalty in six—all Muslim nations. The United States was among those nations that voted “no,” in what is considered a favor to the religious right upon fundamentalist George Bush’s exit from office.
The good news is that the topic is finally being discussed at the UN. Homosexual rights were acknowledged by many to be part of human rights. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights still stands as a most inspiring document.
Third, The New York Times reports that an Islamic revival is taking place now in Bosnia, thirteen years after a war in which some 100,000 people were killed. Muslims were the main victims in this war, and many have now turned their sights on other “others.” A gay festival in Sarajevo was attacked by Muslim men yelling “Kill the gays! God is great!” At the same time an enormous new mosque is being constructed there and strict religious identity is on the upswing.
Apologists for religion often claim that politics is at the heart of conflict, even among fiercely religious groups. For this, the apologists claim, religion is not really to blame. Certainly religion and politics interact, but religious identity and affiliation runs deep. Culture must also be considered. Culture is always more than religion, but in many parts of the world religion is the principle around which culture and politics are organized.
This is why Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, myself and other authors refuse to explain away religion’s destructive impact by blaming politics or culture as if these forces somehow act independently from religion. A global movement is underway to put the blame for so much intolerance and violence where it belongs. Don’t tolerate fundamentalist thinking. Don’t tolerate intolerance! Join us!