Category Archives: Religious Violence

When Righteousness Kills – The Massacre in Paris

Gunmen killed 12 people in the offices of a Paris satire magazine today. It’s widely assumed — and probably true — that the attacks were in retaliation for the magazine’s lampooning of militant Islam, although so far the “perps” have not been identified officially. In response, rightie blogs are having an insufferable self-righteousness orgy, and Richard Dawkins blames Islam. All of it.

Here is a page of cartoonists’ tributes to the magazine, Charlie Hebdo. I thought this one got closest to the truth of it.

charliehebdo

Assuming the gunmen are fanatical Islamists seeking to “punish” the magazine — Yes, they assumed their righteousness trumped other peoples’ lives. Right now a lot of not-Islamic people are going to the same place. It ain’t the religion, folks, or at least not the religion by itself — see “Religious Violence Isn’t Just Religious.”

Read more about religious violence in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

Update: See also “It Wasn’t About the Cartoons.”

What’s With the War on Christmas?

The Christmas television commercials preceded Halloween this year, and I see some of my neighbors have their Christmas decorations up already.

Yes, folks, the annual War on Christmas season has begun.

At Patheos, Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister James Ford writes “Why I’m Afraid of Christians: Or the Briefest Meditation on Wishing Happy Holidays to All.”

There is something hanging in the back of my mind when living in a country dominated by a group of people who have an ideology that puts me at the moment of my death firmly into the fires of hell for, well, forever. And it’s hard not to be vaguely aware of how easy a step it is from seeing someone as firewood in the future to seeing one as killable in the present tense.

Of course, it isn’t the only example of this latent threat of violence. Politicians decrying that atheists can vote comes to mind, too. Pandering to the religious majority, with just a hint of violence in the air. Just a hint. And personally I don’t see much different in the historical rhetoric of jihad and crusade.

But the constant declarations today of people in the religious majority lamenting how they’ve been put upon by having to share space with people of other religions or none is the really scary thing. Violence against religious minorities is a once, and I see no reason to think not, a future thing.

How likely is it that reactionary Christians in the U.S. might become violent? Violence linked to religion is on the rise around the world, according to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. Is it possible religious violence might increase in the U.S. as well?

This may seem unlikely, but do see “Rumblings of Theocratic Violence” by Frederick Clarkson. Clarkson documents that there is indeed a large and well-connected subculture of extreme Christians in the U.S. who are calling for armed insurrection against the government. Some of these extremists are forging ties with the neo-confederate movement and forming paramilitary units.

As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, “religious” violence often is about something else and is just packaged as religion. What we’re seeing around the world is a lot of right-wing reactionism pushing back against cultural change and modernity generally, and for some reason right-wing reactionism these days likes to dress itself up as religion. Hence, a rise in what appears to be “religious” violence.

But there are two qualities found in most violent mass movements that need to be understood —

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both. — Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)

I propose in Rethinking Religion that fervent belief in a holy cause — which doesn’t necessarily have to be religious — by itself doesn’t usually drive people into violence. A holy cause combined with a fanatical grievance, however, will do nicely. If you look at violent groups around the world today, I believe you will see they all harbor fanatical grievances. In their minds, they have been wronged and abused and are entitled to payback.

The last couple of posts, “’Religious Violence’ Isn’t Just Religious” and “The Christian Right’s Pitiful Rearguard Action” both discuss the way the U.S. religious Right cherishes a belief in its own martyrdom, and that holding them to the same anti-discrimination laws as everyone else amounts to discrimination against them. And this is what makes them dangerous. The stronger their sense of fanatical grievance, the more dangerous they are likely to become.

I’m not saying the U.S. religious Right is going to become as extremely dangerous as ISIS. The provocations are not quite so strong — we haven’t experienced war here since 1865, and have not suffered occupying foreign powers. But I think the threat they pose is real, and it’s a big reason their increasingly hysterical screams of martyrdom have me concerned.

“Religious Violence” Isn’t Just Religious

I recommend Sean McElwee’s article at Salon, “What we really talk about when we talk about religion.” Citing the recent Harris-Maher-Affleck “debate” on the culpability of Islam in violence, McElwee writes,

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden. …

… This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

I made the same argument in Rethinking Religion. If you look closely and objectively at incidents of religious violence throughout history, you see it’s never just about religion. More often it’s really about politics, or greed, or colonialism, or some other thing, and religion is just the packaging.

Even when the violence appears primarily motivated by religious beliefs, there’s something else going on beneath the surface that is pushing people to become, shall we say, aggressively pro-active about those beliefs. Psychologically healthy people who are reasonably content with their lives and not feeling particularly aggrieved about anything cannot be incited into violence by scriptures and sermons alone. And I believe this is true even if such persons are very devout. However, people who are angry, afraid, or nursing some sort of fanatical grievance are another story.

McElwee also makes a good point at our tendency to misinterpret the causes of violence.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

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Gay rights protest in front of San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio, Texas, 2008. By Charles 210, Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

That said, there is probably no group of people more likely to become dangerous than religious fanatics — and any religion will do —  nursing a grievance. I wrote in the last post about the fanatical grievance growing among some Christian conservatives in the U.S., who interpret interference with their discrimination against others as discrimination against them.  Christian conservatives assume rights of tribal dominance and demand that government carve out for them exclusive discrimination privileges not extended to other groups. And if they don’t get what they want, they think they are the victims.

In Rethinking Religion I propose that most group violence comes about when a mass movement bears both a holy cause and a fanatical grievance. The “holy cause” doesn’t have to be religion. It could be nationalism — especially belief in a glorious national identity — or a belief in racial superiority, or a lot of other things. But a holy cause by itself usually doesn’t cause people to become violent, especially if there’s a way they can work within the system to get what they want. It’s the fanatical grievance that pushes people over the edge.

That’s why the Christian Right’s obsessive, fanatical belief in its own victimization — the myth of Christian oppression in the U.S. — is seriously dangerous. If fanatical right-wing Christians in the U.S. become more and more frustrated with the system, and feel it is no longer responding to them, some of them could very easily become violent. The elements are there.  I doubt such violence would be as extreme or widespread as has happened in Islamic countries, but not because Islam per se is more violent than Christianity per se. The difference would not be religion, but that the U.S. hasn’t been invaded by foreign armies or subjected to colonial oppression, at least not for more than a couple of centuries.  Being forced to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple is not quite in the same league as foreign occupation. But fanaticism is still fanaticism.

Sam Harris vs. Islam

Sam Harris is very sure that Islam created ISIS, and he criticized President Obama for saying otherwise:

As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”

If indeed Islam itself demands that all apostates must die, it’s been weirdly inconsistent about this over the years. Just yesterday I found an article about Muslims who risked — and sometimes lost — their own lives saving Jews from the Holocaust. Harris would probably argue those Muslims were hypocrites (No True Muslim would rescue a Jew?). But I’m sure if we checked we could probably find many examples of amicable meetings between Muslims and non-Muslims that didn’t end in slaughter.

Maybe the relationship between Islam and violence is not what Harris assumes.

In Rethinking Religion I devote a chapter to religious violence and another to the dynamics of mass movements. In the latter chapter I propose that many of the supposed evils of religion — a propensity to violence and dogmatic faithfulness to irrational beliefs — can be found in many kinds of movements, both religious and not religious. And I propose that violent movements of all sorts have two things in common — a “holy” cause combined with a fanatical grievance.

The holy cause does not have to be religious; patriotism will do nicely, too, especially when combined with belief in ethnic or racial superiority or some kind of glorious national destiny. But the fanatical grievance is an essential component, also. I postulate that people who do not feel particularly aggrieved about anything tend to be disinclined to become violent about their holy causes, whether religious or not.

At Alternet, C.J. Werleman addresses atheists’ flawed view of Islamic terrorism. In particular, he addresses Sam Harris’s insistence that terrorism by Muslims is driven entirely by Islam. Werleman documents that a great many factors other than Islam  have been driving terrorism in Muslim countries, and all of this supports my “fanatical grievance” hypothesis. This is not to say that religion is not a factor, but it is not the simple and direct factor that Harris imagines.

At Foreign Policy, anthropologist Scott Atran writes,

… the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as “humanity” arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire’s majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what’s going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

So, evidence suggests religion can bring out the best in us as well as the worst. I propose that without the “fanatical grievance” factor, religion by itself is unlikely to cause people to go to war. An emotionally healthy and reasonably contended individual does not become a mass murderer because of something he reads in scripture, no matter how devout he is.

Religion does not exist in a vacuum. All religions live and grow within a culture of, well, culture. And politics, and society, and history. These things exist together and condition each other in countless ways. Sometimes culture expresses itself through religion. Sometimes religion expresses itself through culture. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Religious identity often gets mixed into ethnic or national identity, so that “defending the faith” becomes synonymous with “defending my people.”

Very often the factors that push a movement toward violence may have little to do with religion, but at some point in the process religion is trotted out to justify whatever extreme measures are used to achieve ends. More often than not, the truth of this isn’t apparent even to the people fomenting the violence. Religious violence often begins when people become angry or fearful about something, and as a desire to strike the feared or hated thing grows, religion provides a great moral cover for whatever violent impulses want to be expressed. Persuading yourself that you have been anointed to do God’s terrible work makes it much easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

Religion, then, is not the root cause of violence as often as it is an accelerant. Scott Atran writes,

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments.

We can see from our own home-grown fundamentalists that all kinds of unrelated things can become sacralized. Some American conservative Christians have sacralized capitalism, for example, to the point of claiming free-market capitalism is ordained by the Bible.

As Karen Armstrong and other scholars have documented, religious fundamentalism is primarily a backlash against modernity. The original Christian fundamentalist movement arose in the late 19th century United States in reaction to a spectrum of social and cultural challenges, such as the huge influx of immigrants, many of which were barely connected to religion.

In the broader sense of the word, “fundamentalist” religious movements around the world are reactionary. They tend to be obsessed with creating some kind of sacred enclave where they can be in complete control and free of outside influence. Often, as in the case of ISIS, they venerate a highly mythologized version of the past that they say they want to restore. They place great importance on sacred symbols and moral purity, especially the moral purity of women. But they also tend not to follow their own religions in any kind of holistic way. Any parts of their own doctrines or scriptures that do not support their violent path, such as teachings on mercy and compassion, are studiously ignored.

So, whether Sam Harris likes it or not, there is a solid argument to be made that the root cause of ISIS is not Islam, and that instead Islam has been appropriated to serve as packaging for a veritable compost heap of grievances mostly related to politics and oil. That said, the extent to which the ISIS movement can persuade itself its cause is holy will have a lot to do with how long and hard and effectively the group will survive and keep fighting. So Islam cannot be ignored.

At the same time, it can be argued that what’s fueling ISIS is more of an idea of Islam than Islam itself. Rather than a practice of humble submission to the will of God, this idea of Islam exalts and empowers the leaders and followers of ISIS. And while it’s not up to me to judge what is “true” Islam and what isn’t, I respect arguments that the ISIS version aint’ it.

But Sam Harris says he knows better.

Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran.

The Qu’ran is not my area, but I doubt it’s Sam Harris’s area, either. Harris’s words smack more of bigotry than scholarship. Obviously, Harris has a deep ego-investment in the belief that Religion Is Bad, and that good ol’ confirmation bias backs him up every time. I doubt that his mind could be opened to entertain another view. And that’s why he’s mostly clueless.

Making Islam the enemy is the last thing we should be doing now. For another view, see Salam Al Marayati, “The Key to Defeating ISIS Is Islam.”

Religious violence is a complex topic. Sometimes religious institutions have made cold-blooded decisions to betray their own doctrines and engage in violence, and this is usually related to either ensuring the institution’s survival or spreading its influence.  But examples of this kind of violence have become less common in the modern era, and I don’t know if it applies to any violence going on in the world now.

What I do know is that responses to religious violence coming from a place of knee-jerk bigotry and ignorance are not going to help us deal with it.

Read more about religious violence in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

Why China Rewrites History

The so-called Xinjiang autonomous region of China is home to an indigenous population of Uighur Muslims. There has been friction and sometimes violence between the Uighurs and Han Chinese. Over the past year over 200 people have died in ethnic violence in Xinjiang.

Read More About the Roots of Religious Violence

But Beijing has a nifty way to plaster over such problems, or at least soothe the consciences of the Han Chinese. They generate phony happy history! False narratives about China’s past, repeated even in textbooks and scholarly histories, reinforce the belief among Chinese that the minorities among them, including the Uighurs and Tibetans, are members of an extended family of Chinese nationhood with roots going back centuries.

However, the roots are not real, and the only people who don’t realize this are the Chinese. Andrew Jacobs writes for the New York Times:

When it comes to China’s ethnic minorities, the party-run history machine is especially single-minded in its effort to promote story lines that portray Uighurs, Mongolians, Tibetans and other groups as contented members of an extended family whose traditional homelands have long been part of the Chinese nation.

Busloads of Chinese tourists are rolling into Xinjiang to visit a particular Islamic shrine, where an Uighur woman named Iparhan is said to be buried. The Chinese are being told that Iparhan, or Xiangfei in Chinese, was the great love of the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799). He was so intoxicated with her that after she came to live in his palace, he built a replica of her village outside her window to please her. When she died, 120 men escorted her body over 2,700 miles so she could be buried in her homeland.

That’s the Chinese version, anyway. The Uighur version is that Iparhan was a sex slave who was murdered by the emperor’s mother for being insufficiently obedient. And her body was not returned. Archeologists believe she is buried near Beijing.

Which version is true? The New York Times article says the “Disney” version became popular in the early 20th century, but Chinese Communist Party historians have improved on it since. And scholarly historians who say otherwise risk having their careers destroyed. However, the Chinese story of Xiangfei is now a popular topic for plays and television dramas, and commercial enterprises from a chain of roast chicken restaurants to a line of perfume are named in her honor.

What is all this happy talk about? According to this BBC report, Han Chinese moving into Xinjiang are snapping up the best jobs. Further,

Activists say Uighur religious, commercial and cultural activities have been gradually curtailed by the Chinese state. There are complaints that the Uighurs experience severe restrictions in the practice of their Muslim faith, with fewer mosques and strict control over religious schools.

Rights group Amnesty International, in a report published in 2013, said authorities criminalised “what they labelled ‘illegal religious’ and ‘separatist’ activities” and clamped down on “peaceful expressions of cultural identity”.

Last month some Uighur in civil service jobs were banned from fasting during Ramadan, the BBC says.

Be clear that the happy talk is not intended to placate the Uighurs. Instead it is entirely aimed at Han Chinese, who are persuaded that the benevolent rule of China is a great blessing to their more backward minorities. It also is intended to absolve Chinese policy when violence breaks out. Chinese citizens are persuaded that the violence is the result of crazed separatists who are too unreasonable or ignorant to appreciate what China is doing for them.

Disneyfied versions of Tibetan history are used to the same effect. China must maintain the fiction that Tibet has been part of China for centuries in order to persuade the Chinese that the takeover in the 1950s was not just the bare-assed invasion that it was. The New York Times story mentions Princess Wengchen, a daughter of a Chinese emperor given in marriage to the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo (d. ca. 650). Historians say there was no such princess or marriage, but her story fuels a folk belief in an ancient alliance between China and Tibet.

Beijing has gone so far as to build a Tibetan “Disneyland” in Chengde, which is in Heibei Province northeast of Beijing. Chengde was the site of the summer residence of the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722), and it is a popular tourist destination for the Chinese today. Many of the exhibits and spectacles at the park portray a visit to the Kangxi emperor by the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682). During this visit, the exhibits say, the two rulers agreed that  Tibet was a province of China. Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Review of Books,

Kangxi’s achievement is celebrated in Chengde in an ultra-high-tech theatrical extravaganza called the Kangxi Ceremony that plays nightly in a vast open-air amphitheater about ten miles outside the city. The show begins with several dozen uniformed horsemen galloping across the turf in front of the audience and taking up positions in the suddenly illuminated hills that surround a large circular stage. Amplified drums and a throaty male chorus fill up the night air as an actor playing Kangxi, dressed in lustrous robes of yellow brocade, gallops onto the scene, his horse rearing, cheered on by dozens of surrounding horsemen.

The tourists eat this up. However, the event being so spectacularly portrayed could not possibly have happened. The 5th Dalai Lama did make a well-documented state visit  to Beijing, not Chengde, probably arriving in January 1654. But this was a few months before the Kangxi Emperor was born.  It is documented that during this visit His Holiness was treated as a visiting head of state, not a vassal. And the Great Fifth never went back to China.

See also The Disneyfication of Tibet.

Silence, Noble and Ignoble

A couple of days ago I published a post called “How Evil Happens,” cross-posted from The Mahablog.  The post commented on the violence in Gaza and the episodes of Israeli bombs hitting UN schools in which Palestinian civilians were taking shelter.

The bare facts of the situation indicate that while the schools probably were not being targeted, neither had Israel shown much concern about not bombing the schools. And Israel had been informed the schools were being used as refuges. Israel was unable to provide a verifiable reason for the bombing; Israeli forces seem to think that whatever they do is justified, period.

I quoted Rethinking Religion:

People are seduced into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will.

And I said the same admonishment no doubt applies to Palestinian terrorists as well.

Please understand that I’m not saying people or nations shouldn’t defend themselves from those who intend to do them harm. What gets us into trouble is thinking that we’re entitled to Holy Retribution or that we are somehow qualified to pass judgments and inflict brutality on entire populations, because we’re the good guys.

The United States has fallen into the same error, many times.

A comment was left on my other site, which said —

The Fourth Mindfulness Training: I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I am wondering whether you can quote these sources with the certainty that they are true?

We can’t always know for certain what goes on out of our sight. For that matter, we’re often confused about what’s going on within our sight. But in the case of the bombed UN schools, even Israel is not denying that the bombings occurred as news sources reported. What’s in dispute is whether other circumstances justified the bombings. Since I wrote the original post, no new information has come to light that makes Israel’s arguments any stronger.

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Buddhist “right speech” teachings are sometimes interpreted to mean that one cannot criticize anyone else, ever, for any reason, and I don’t see it that way. Certainly one does not spread lies or gossip, and one does not use speech in an ego-centered way, tearing others down to build ourselves up.

However, if we don’t at least offer what insight or wisdom we may have to the suffering world, what good are we?

Most of the mass atrocities of human history were carried out by people who believed their actions were completely justified. This has been true of followers of all the world’s great religions and no doubt any nation that’s been in existence for at least a few years. Things are done that the descendents of the perpetrators try to erase from history or eventually acknowledge in sorrow when enough time has passed. Yet generation after generation, we never seem to learn from this.

I don’t see any group of people, including nations, as intrinsically good or evil. This is just what humans do, and have always done.

Did the Buddha actually intend for us to keep silence in the face of atrocity? Or to wait to speak until the verdict of history has been issued, which usually takes a generation or two? I don’t think so. The Buddha himself could be unsparing in his words when somebody did something completely out of bounds.

In the Patimokkha, a section of the Vinaya-pitaka, or rules for monks and nuns, the Buddha discussed the correct way for one monk or nun to admonish another. If the criticism is timely, factual, not unnecessarily harsh, and offered with a kind heart, this is skillful admonishment. And while I don’t always live up to that, in this situation I believe I did.

How Evil Happens

William Saletan at Slate (yeah, I know, it’s William Saletan, but it’s a good article) and Ben Hubbard/Jodi Rudoren at the New York Times write that Israel simply isn’t concerning itself with whether their shells are hitting UN schools where Palestinian civilians are taking refuge. Israel is saying it’s not targeting “safe zones,” and maybe it isn’t. But it appears Israel is taking no precaution to not bomb safe zones, either.

Saletan is accusing Israel of war crimes, saying that the Israelis have succumbed to a mentality that everything they do is justified because Hamas is ruthless. For example:

Israel’s prime minister and other officials have argued that Hamas’ use of human shields makes it completely responsible for any civilian casualties in Gaza.

This mentality makes it that much easier to pull the trigger. The Times says Israeli officials have offered no evidence that enemy fighters were near the Jabaliya school, and interviews with people on the neighboring streets found nobody who had seen fighters in the vicinity. Nor were there any bullet casings or holes. Does the enemy’s frequent use of human shields justify killing civilians in an instance where there’s no evidence of that behavior? Did this rationale play a role in the IDF’s decision to shoot?

This is a classic example of how good people get sucked into doing bad things, and I suspect Palestinian terrorists would offer us another example of the same thing. I wrote in Rethinking Religion,

If we were paying attention, history should have taught us that people who create evil hardly ever see themselves or their intentions as evil. Osama bin Laden and his 9/11 terrorists believed their attack was righteous and justified, as did Timothy McVeigh when he blew up the Oklahoma City federal building.

People are seduced into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will. And the seduction begins with the thought that “I’m a good person,” and “his hatred of me is evil, but my hatred of him is justified.” As soon as we identify ourselves as “good” and the Other, whoever they are, as “evil,” we’ve well on the way to giving ourselves a cosmic permission slip to do whatever we want to be rid of them.

I say this seductive impulse is at the root of most of the mass atrocities humankind has inflicted on itself through the ages. That’s why the ways we conceptualize good and evil have real-world consequences.

Please understand that I’m not saying people or nations shouldn’t defend themselves from those who intend to do them harm. What gets us into trouble is thinking that we’re entitled to Holy Retribution or that we are somehow qualified to pass judgments and inflict brutality on entire populations, because we’re the good guys.

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Same old, same old.

[Cross-posted at The Mahablog]

Why the U.S. Christian Right Is Dangerous

Amanda Marcotte writes about The Christian right’s obscene, defining hypocrisy.

Whether it’s liberal college professors supposedly turning kids to Marxism or gay people who are accused of recruiting, over and over you hear the claim that the children of conservatives are in serious danger of being talked into everything from voting for Democrats to getting gay-married. …

… I think I know where conservatives get the idea that other people are sneaking around trying to indoctrinate children into unthinking ideologies. It’s because they themselves are totally guilty of it, both in terms of trying to recruit other people’s children and trying to frighten their own children about the dangers of exploring thoughts outside of the ones approved by their own rigid ideologies.

Marcotte provides several examples, from a group operating in Portland pubic parks that entices children with games and then teaches them about Hell, to the growing “home schooling” movement that encourages parents to keep their kids out of public school so they won’t be exposed to any but an extremist, right-wing religious ideology.

You can trace the anti-public school hysteria back to Brown v. Board of Ed. (1954). Before court-ordered school desegregation, even (white) conservative Bible Belt parents thought public school was one of the great things about America, and only those idol-worshiping Papists sent kids to parochial schools. After Brown, however, suddenly public school education was no good.

Parents yanked their kids out of public school and sent them to all-white “Christian academies,” which sprang up suddenly like mushrooms after the rain. The first voucher programs began then, so that tax dollars could follow the white children into their new white schools. But when the private schools also had to desegregate to survive, the home schooling movement was born.

By now, the home schoolers probably don’t consciously associate home schooling with racial segregation. Their “cause” has morphed into a general mistrust of mainstream America.

Karen Armstrong, who writes about religious history and fundamentalist movements around the world, defines fundamentalism in a broad sense as a reaction against and rejection of modern Western society. Fundamentalists, in different ways, all attempt to establish enclaves of pure faith that shut out any other views. Those they come in contact with who aren’t “them” must be assimilated. And in time, if that doesn’t work, they must be eliminated.

There are two chapters in Rethinking Religion dedicated to religious mass movements and religious violence. These chapter propose that the two factors always present in violent mass movements are a holy cause — defending the faith against those they think are its enemies, in this case — combined with a fanatical grievance, or the belief they’re the ones who are the victims. You see this in violent Islam, in the violent Buddhists in Myanmar, and also in mass movements that are not expressly religious. If religion isn’t the “holy cause,” sometimes belief in a glorious national or racial destiny will do nicely as well.

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The “Christian Right” in America definitely shows all the symptoms that lead to violence. They are obsessed with the belief they are being persecuted and are surrounded by enemies. A growing subculture of ignorant religious fanatics could prove to be a huge and violent threat eventually. I’m not sure what to do about it, but it’s not healthy.

Fanatics of Faith

Timothy Egan writes in the New York Times that fewer than 7 percent of humankind’s wars involved religion. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,'” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” That surprises me, frankly. I would have guessed at least half.

But of course, there are disagreements about which conflicts are religious and which are not. Egan mentions “Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s bloody purges and Pol Pot’s mass murders” as examples of not-religious atrocities. But I’ve read arguments that those terrible things were religious, really.

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One such argument I discussed in my book, Rethinking Religion, is that religious messianism can seep into a culture and inspire the kind of political messianism that gives power to a Hitler or a Mao Zedong. And I do think there’s something to that argument. But I propose that it’s more likely messianism, fanaticism, and violent aggression come from deeper places in the psyche and attach themselves to whatever cause or issue is at hand, religious or not religious.

Egan’s point is that while religious violence has not been the norm in history, right now it is. If you look around the globe, the majority of ongoing violent conflicts have some connection to religion, somewhere. Sometimes it’s hard to find one that doesn’t,in fact. And these same religions also preach love and compassion.

“The problem is that people of faith often become fanatics of faith,” Egan writes. “Reason and force are useless against aspiring martyrs.”

It’s important to look carefully at the connection between religion and violence. The terrible irony is that very often people engaged in religious violence are violating the teachings of the very religion that is the object of their fanaticism. That is definitely true of the Buddhist of Burma and Sri Lanka who are attacking Muslims, for example. There is absolutely nothing in Buddhist teaching that condones or excuses what they are doing.

I say the one element most current religious violence has in common is that they are coming from reactionary movements opposed to some kind of social change. The change may be creeping western hegemony, or the presence of a despised ethnic minority, or many other things. But what often seems to happen is that political, social, or cultural reactionism seizes religion to give itself moral cover, or to justify bigoted and irrational fears.

Very often political and religious reactionism form alliances and support one another. This is certainly true in Burma and Sri Lanka and in the Islamic Middle East. It’s also true in the United States, even though our religion-based terrorism has been mostly centered on abortion clinics, which for some reason means it doesn’t count.

Extremist religious groups rarely follow their own religion’s teachings in any kind of holistic way. They make a fetish of some practices — usually those involving moral purity and the status of women, or respect for symbols and icons — while completely ignoring teachings about compassion and tolerance. This suggests to me that religious violence has deeper social and psychological roots than doctrinal ones.