Over at BeliefNet, Gregg Easterbrook writes the following:
Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other by the hundreds in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Hindus and Muslims are slaughtering each other in India, herding neighbors into house or trains then setting them afire. Catholics and Protestants continue to kill each other in Northern Ireland. Sunnis and Shias have their arms wrapped around each other’s throats throughout the Islamic world. And of course, on Sept. 11, 19 Muslims were so determined to murder helpless Christians and Jews that they were willing to die to shed the blood of other religions.
Not a terribly good reflection on faith, is it? If religion makes people want to murder each other, maybe religion is bad for the world.
Hard to argue with that. Remarkably, however, this is the beginning of a column claiming to defend religion.
Religion has certainly been bad for history. In recent decades alone, Hindus and Sikhs have been slaughtering each other, blowing up airliners and firing artillery shells into temples. In the fighting over Sri Lanka, Tamil Hindus have fired machine guns at school buses full of Sinhalese Buddhist children, and the Buddhists in turn have firebombed Hindu schools. Thousands of Chinese grew up as orphans because their Buddhist parents were murdered during World War II at the urging of Shinto priests.
Paragraph after paragraph of this! You have to go to page two before Easterbrook attempts to turn the tide:
Killing in the name of God or belief, which shames every religion, ought to give the person of faith pause. But should it cause us to abandon faith? Would the world be better off if religion disappeared?
Some people would say yes, and since it’s impossible to conduct this experiment, as faith is definitely not going away, we can’t be sure. But when we observe the horror of religiously motivated violence or hatred, maybe the correct question is, Without religion would it be even worse? (Emphasis in original).
Before moving on we really must address the idea that killing in the name of God shames every religion. This is factually incorrect. As Easterbrook’s list of religion-inspired atrocities shows, there are many religions, and many religious people, who think killing in the name of God is the most wonderful thing there is.
What Easterbrook meant to say was that killing in the name of God shames moderate religious people. But, and here’s the catch, religious moderates are the ones who do not learn their morality from holy books or religious dogma. What differentiates radical from moderate Islam, for example, is the willingness of the radicals to take seriously what the Koran has to say regarding the proper treatment of infidels. The radicals, after all, say it is the moderates who act shamefully in not defending their faith with the requisite vigor.
It is not as if there is a correct and an incorrect way to practice a particular religion. In fact, there is no religion at all outside of how it is practiced.
So how is Easterbrook going to persuade us of a yes answer to his italicized question?
What’s really underlying many “religious” disputes is ethnicity, money, and national distinctions, factors that would exist regardless of whether anyone had ever heard the word “God.” The fighting in Israel today, for example, is not primarily about religion–Jews, Muslims and Christians have coexisted fairly peacefully in that area for most of the last 1,300 years. Until recently, the Holy Land fighting was mainly about land, and whom it’s been promised to. Palestinians hated Israelis because they viewed them as oppressors, not because they were Jews–although that hatred has turned lately to anti-Semitism. Israelis hated Palestinians because they viewed them as terrorists, not because they were Muslims–although, lately the hatred has turned anti-Muslim. If the land dispute could be resolved, the religious dispute would rapidly fade to secondary or tertiary status–though ethnic tensions pitting Ashkenazim and Sephardim against Arabs might drone on.
This is foolish for at least two reasons.
First, arguing that religion is not the only source of tension between people is hardly argument for why things would be worse were religion eliminated. Easterbrook can talk about ethnicity, money and nationalism all he wants. The act remains that religion itself is a major source of tension among people. The point isn’t that eliminating religion would lead to peace and harmony all over the globe. It is merely that eliminating religion would eliminate one major source of tension.
Second, in the context of Israel this argument is especially inapt. They’re fighting over land, Easterbrook tells us. Indeed they are, but one reason the fight is so acrimonious is that both sides believe they have a divine right to the land in dispute. It is the cornerstone of Judaism, after all, that God made a covenant with His chosen people in which Jews agree to live by certain laws and are given the land of Israel in return. The land is no less sacred to the Muslims. You can’t argue the dispute is about land while ignoring the religious reasons for finding that particular bit of land so important.
This, however, is Easterbrook’s only argument. After repeating his point in the context of the dispute in Northern Ireland, he unloads this:
Similar ethnic, class, and nationalistic disputes underlie pretty much every fight that looks on the surface to be about religion. Suppose the Christian and Islamic faiths vanished. Sept. 11 might still have happened. Within the Arab world, where many resent the West, violent fanatics might have vowed to kill themselves solely on secular grounds. Indeed, it can be argued that since the mass murderers of Sept. 11 openly violated the Quranic prohibition against killing the innocent, they weren’t true Muslims anyway. What they were was terrorist fanatics. And a certain number of people like this would exist in the world whether religious faith existed or not.
Sure, maybe 9/11 would have happened anyway. The fact remains that the way things actually unfolded it did happen and religious faith was at the heart of it. And, again, this was supposed to be an argument for why things would be worse without religion, not for why it is possible that things would be as bad.
As for Easterbrook’s comment about Quranic prohibitions, the fanatics would reply simply that the people in the towers that day were not innocents. They were infidels. But even so, let’s concede Easterbrook’s point that the 9/11 hijakcers were not true Muslims. They are, nonetheless, true somethings, and that something has religious faith at its core.
Easterbrook concludes with:
Men and women of all faiths must feel deeply chastened about the continuing violence in the name of religion. We ought to feel the very worst about violence, or hatred, perpetrated by those who say they believe what we believe. But this does not mean we should give up those beliefs. Rather, we must work to make belief sincere. Only then is there a chance the violence will stop.
Right. Because the problem with the 9/11 hijackers was a lack of sincerity.
This is why I’ll never understand people like Easterbrook. He provides an admirable list of the horrors done in the name of religion. But instead of drawing the obvious conclusion, that it is not a good thing to have large numbers of people running around basing their lives on fairy tales, he argues instead that the bad folks don’t believe the right fairy tales, or that they have drawn the wrong conclusions from the fairy tales they do believe.
I don’t know if the world would be better without religion. The question is too hypothetical, and the word “religion” too vague to really provide an answer. But what I think we can say with absolute confidence is that the world would be a better place if more people were willing to base their morality on a basic sense of simple human dignity than on the teachings of ancient holy books. Or if people were more willing to adopt a live and let live attitude towards the practices of other people. The trouble is, religion as it is actually practiced is the premiere impediment to such attitudes.