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Radicalism – no single religion’s burden October 15, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Religion.
Tags: ,

Today I chanced upon a quiz in the New York Times on the topic of religion. It’s no ordinary quiz. It forces us to rethink our preconceptions of the main religions that we encounter around us and in the news. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, most of us form a certain stereotypical impression of different religions. We tend to attribute certain traits to different religions, and such labelling of certain religions as “good” or “bad” are also conveniently tainted by one’s own religious preferences. Especially in the age of islamophobia, plenty of other religionists are quick to point their fingers at Islam for encouraging extremism and violence, without themselves taking a look at their own religion’s scriptures.

By no means am I defending one religion over another, or accusing any one religion of being especially guilty of promoting radicalism. The truth is that any holy book from any religion can be interpreted in as peaceful, or as violent as one wishes. Instead of just passing off certain individuals as simply “misinterpreting” the holy texts, religious leaders and followers have to first come to terms with accepting just how easily and dangerously their text can be interpreted. And as long as such verses remain in holy scripture, who can blame a devout follower for taking the text too literally? Whose fault is it, when an enthusiastic follower decides to kill unbelievers, or stone his daughter, or endorse acts of terror in the name of religion, if not the religion itself?

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The radical Islam that we see today is no worse than the radical Christianity that fueled the atrocities committed in the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, which is in turn no more forgivable than Zionist or Hindu motivated political violence.

While it may be true that it takes a certain personal or political motivation to cause an individual to interpret religious text in an extreme way, the question remains: why keep such inflammatory verses at all? Why make it so easy for extremists to justify their cause? Is it due to the blissful ignorance of the nasty parts of one’s own religion? Is the the fear of questioning how something so cruel and violent can be part of a supposedly peaceful faith? Is it the silent endorsement of the truth of such verses, whilst still maintaining a veil of tolerence necessary for living in a multi religious world? Is the comfort of cognitive dissonance really worth the number of lives destroyed by religious extremism?

If any new religion or philosophy today came up with a manifesto containing half the amount of violence glorification as that in the holy texts of Christianity, Islam and Judiasm, its leader would never be able to get away with the simplistic explanation that the verses were meant to be taken metaphorically. There is no reason why any religion should be spared of taking responsibility for providing the rationale for radicalism and extremism. “Kill all unbelievers! P.S. don’t take that literally” Just doesn’t cut it.



1. Weekday Blues - October 15, 2010

the radical Christianity that fueled the atrocities committed in the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition

This analogy fails a little because it tends to position such extremist violence in the past, in history. Perhaps another example might be the domestic terror attacks in USAmerica where medical facilities providing access to abortion are bombed, and doctors shot?

Anyway, I just want to say that, yay, you’re back from hiatus! And I found the quiz very thought-provoking, thanks for sharing :)

— Wednesday.

laïcité - October 16, 2010

Thanks Wednesday, you’re right, the terrorist attacks by the Christian right wing extremists in America may be a more relatable example of religious extremism. But I thought the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition were important examples for two reasons.

Firstly, while Christians today may try to wriggle their way out of the situation by saying that abortion clinic bombers are “not true Christians”, the Knights Templars and Spanish Inquisitors were very much the “true Christians” of their day. Nothing was considered radical about them, they were pretty much following their religion in a widely acceptable way.

Secondly, the acts of terror committed during the inquision and the crusades were not only condoned, but also encouraged by the Church. Today we take for granted the assumption that no mainstream religion would condone acts of violence, that all religions preach peace. But that wasn’t so in the past, and there is no good reason to assume so today.

2. Jeremiah Gottwald - October 15, 2010

I’ll tell you why. The holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths (not to say that it is any more different from Dianetics or the The Melancholy) all claim to be the infallible word of God. If even one part of it was untrue, it invites the awful realization that the unchangeable and infallible word of God is not so great after all.

Therein lies the paradox, if one picks and chooses verses that sound nice, it means that the book is flawed, and the assumption that God is infallible is untrue. Yet if one were to hold on to the rigorous belief that the Bible was true, one would have to accept slavery, racist bigotry and God-sponsored genocide among other things. That’s not even accounting for the possibility that the book itself is not the “right” book.

One only needs to look back into the recent past to find that people do get away with saying ridiculous things, but only if one claims it to be the word of God. Jim Jones, Shoko Asahara, Bin Laden all are able to get away with it because they truly believe (at least they preach so) that they know the mind of God, and by proxy, they themselves are infallible as well.

The certain belief that they are right is the lever that propels them into action, and it would be parlous to ignore them, given the influence that they claim. Especially when one thinks about it, these most deadly extremists are the most devout.

laïcité - October 16, 2010

That is very true, Jeremiah. And if we were to expand on your point about the most deadly extremists being the most devout, we might have to come to a very politically incorrect, socially unacceptable conclusion: being an absolute, unquestioning, faithful believer who accepts the holy text in its entirety requires one to be an extremist. That statement, if made by a radical cleric, may be taken to be a call to take up arms to fight a holy war. But in this case, that statement only serves to reveal the ugly head of religion.

Weekday Blues - October 16, 2010

being an absolute, unquestioning, faithful believer who accepts the holy text in its entirety requires one to be an extremist.

One counter-argument would be that accepting scriptures unquestioningly is idolatry rather than devotion? *shrug* I prefer to think that the apparatus is flawed but the essence is benevolent.

— Wednesday

3. Lee Chee Wai - October 19, 2010

I think it is very easy to forget there are few absolutes in human behavior, even with extremists. I think the human mind can only handle so many internal contradictions before it is forced to choose between: rejecting an idea as false; seeking further information to resolve those contradictions; cherry-picking the whatever appears most convenient and palatable; or simply shut down.

In my mind, radicalism happens when people choose to cherry-pick “truths” and either shut out inconvenient contradictions or simply rationalize them away.

I “see” myself doing this all the time when I go to the movies, particularly with complex mind-bender storylines like Inception. I tend not to want to ruin my movie experience by rejecting a storyline wholesale because of internal contradictions in the plot :P. Ramp that feeling up a thousand times … and methinks you get religion.

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