The one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando allowed a new round in the stale debates over gun control and the nature of the religion of Islam. All gun owners and all Muslims are treated as collectively responsible for what one deranged loser did to get his name in the news. And the bickering, for all its vehemence, has the practical effect of avoiding any solutions.
First a linguistic point. The name of the religion, Islam, refers to submission to the will of God and derives from the Arabic word, salam, peace. The submission here is not to any human being or human institution. And given the familial relationship between Arabic and Hebrew, the name, Allah, is a cognate of the Hebrew equivalent, Elohim. This provides us an easy example of how believers can spot the motes of error in the religions of others, while failing to notice the planks of absurdity in their own doctrinal platform. Many Christians declare themselves to be broken and in need of submitting their will over to their particular deity, but the idea that another religion might call for the same thing gives them horrors.
And rightly so, though those should be carried to their logical conclusion. Every fundamentalism is bad. By fundamentalism, I mean any belief that grounds itself in a work of mythology that insists that it has the only correct interpretation thereof and seeks to compel obedience even on the part of non-believers to a code of behavior that shows no evidence of being better than others. Which is to say, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalism are equally bad in conception and in execution.
Some will object here that Christians don’t commit the acts of terrorism that we’ve witnessed over recent years. They will object that the Inquisition, for example, doesn’t count since it occurred centuries ago. Very well, but will today’s fundamentalists acknowledge that what was done then was wrong? And how do they regard the Balkans Wars in which Catholics and Orthodox Christians fought with each other and sought to slaughter the Muslims who lived in the region? Do they understand that the Troubles in Northern Ireland had disputes over which version of Christianity is the true one as a primary driver? Unless they’re willing to commit a No True Scotsman fallacy, they must also explain how the Christian Identity movement and related organizations are not relevant to the racists who kill in their name or in pursuit of their ideology, such as the Charleston shooter. And what explanation do they have for the various killers who have murdered gynecologists or visitors to family-planning clinics?
If anyone is going to tell me that the vast majority of Christians aren’t responsible for those actions, that person will have to admit that the same statement applies to the same proportion of Muslims. The counterargument will be raised here that the message of Christianity is one of peace and love. This, of course, requires ignoring the Hebrew parts of the Bible, considering the many actions that would draw the death penalty and the many commandments that demand genocide of various peoples living either in the neighborhood of God’s tribe, the land that he orders them to take, or of the whole world in the Flood — though God uncharacteristically takes care of that one himself. And let’s recall that Jesus in Matthew 10 and Luke 12 says that he hasn’t come to bring peace, but instead in the first example a sword and in the second division. He then goes on to say that believers must turn against their own families to follow him. Given the long history of Christians who murdered each other for differing on points of doctrine or who have murdered others who wouldn’t submit, how this supposedly peaceful religion has been understood by many of its believers is clear.
Now this is not to say that all Christians are to blame. Again, in the same way that the vast majority of gun owners and the vast majority of Muslims were not at fault for the Orlando attack, neither are all Christians responsible for the many horrors committed by the religion’s adherents. What we do need to understand is that fundamentalisms are only tolerable when they must confine themselves to persuasion, rather than using the force of government. Our separation of religion and state allows Americans to believe whatever they wish and to impose whatever constraints on themselves that they like, but denies them the legal authority to make anyone else submit.
But more than that, we also have to recognize the corrosive effect that fundamentalism has on all, whether believers or not. There has been speculation about the sexual orientation of the Orlando shooter, and while from the perspective of the psychological sciences that may be an interesting question to explore, it doesn’t matter in practical terms if he was himself gay and thereby was led to hate himself by his religion or if his religion merely inspired him to express hatred against others.
What people of good will have to do is make it clear that while we will defend everyone’s right to believe, we will also not be silent when those beliefs are hateful or absurd. Nor will we allow such beliefs to be legislated into the force of law, regardless of whether they come clothed in the garb of Islam or Christianity. Vile people will always attempt to commit horrors, but in the openness of our modern world, their doctrines are dying in the sunlight, and they have a harder time escaping notice either before or after they act. The natural reaction to such incidents is to lash out, but we have to pause, reminding ourselves that blind rage is the characteristic of our enemies. If we adopt that ourselves, we’re no better. The long arc of justice requires patient application of right action — the promotion and defense of the humanist values of freedom and rationality — along with the acceptance, based on the evidence shown in Steven Pinker’s book, Better Angels of Our Nature, that in fact the world is growing more peaceful over time.
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