After watching the evening news, it’s hard to believe that religion makes us kinder to one another.
This month’s murder sprees by fundamentalists in Paris and Nigeria follow months of slaughter by ISIS and the Taliban in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
And adherents of Islam are not the only ones to engage in violence. Israel’s merciless bombardment of Gaza last summer resulted in the deaths of hundreds of women and children. In parts of Africa, evangelical Christians continue to campaign for the death penalty for gay men. And in Burma, Buddhist monks preach hate against that country’s persecuted Muslim minority.
So what is it about religion that so readily incites hatred?
A Recipe for Tyrannical Rule
Few would argue that religions, at their best, seek to instil values of responsibility, charity, compassion, humility, and love. In his book ‘The End of Faith’ best-selling author Sam Harris writes that there is ‘much that is wise and consoling and beautiful in our religious books’.
However, as Harris argues, it is equally true to say that the religious books also contain ‘mountains of life-destroying gibberish.’
More specifically, most religions claim that they alone possess infallible knowledge of the word of God. They also insist that no proof is necessary to substantiate such claims, and that oppression of those who dissent is justified in the name of God.
This potent mix of love and oppression gives religion tremendous power as a propaganda tool in the hands of pathological zealots.
It provides those with a paranoid disposition with the perfect outlet for their talents as cheerleaders of hate against unbelievers. It provides narcissists with the empowering illusion that they are speaking on behalf of God. And it provides psychopaths with unlimited opportunities to kill and maim countless innocents and be proclaimed heroes for doing so.
In short, in the words of Reza Aslan, author of ‘How to Win a Cosmic War’, it turns those who should be considered thugs and murderers into soldiers of God.
A Change in Religious Thinking
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks there has been much debate about the best way to defeat religious extremism. Both religion and the state have crucial roles to play.
Religious extremism can only be defeated with the active participation of the religious. Last week, Dalil Boubakeur, the Rector at the Great Mosque in Paris, made a welcome call for a change in religious thinking in Islam.
This is what that change in thinking must be.
It must set doubt and humility above the arid insistence that any single religion possesses a monopoly on truth. It must insist on the application of reason in place of unquestioning faith. And it must demand compassion, celebrate diversity and forbid the oppression and persecution of those of different faiths and none.
But defeating religious extremism cannot be left to the religious alone.
It is not a coincidence that extremism is most pronounced in states that are weak or where religion and state are still intertwined. In weak states, the state lacks the resources to provide every child with an education free from religious hatred, and to enforce equal treatment for all regardless of religious belief. In countries where there is no separation of church and state, the state too often takes an active role in such indoctrination and in oppressing unbelievers.
The state therefore has a crucial role to play, by ensuring the separation of church and state and, where this is not present, by setting limits on religious education and being forceful in protecting the rights of all citizens equally regardless of religious affiliation.
A Holy Alliance
The challenge of taming religious extremism is not new.
During the Enlightenment, philosopher Denis Diderot wrote, ‘Lost in an immense forest during the night I only have a small light to guide me. An unknown man appears and says to me “My friend, blow out your candle so you can better find your way.” This unknown man is a theologian.’
Two centuries later, religious fundamentalists of all stripes are still intent on blowing out the candles of humility, reason and compassion.
To prevent them from succeeding, we require a new alliance between secularists and religious to enforce the common values that the vast majority share.