In discussions of religious pluralism—like the one going on about the “Ground Zero mosque”—I always find myself in an odd position. I’m generally a fan of diversity and tolerance, but I absolutely hate religion. So even though I risk aligning myself with irrational, hate-mongering bigots like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, I still essentially agree with them: I don’t think that there should be a mosque near Ground Zero.
Now, I should clarify that I also agree that this is a local issue, and that the government should not restrict the rights of Muslims to practice their religion. With that said, most of the plan’s opponents have acknowledged this, and maintained that even though the Cordoba House (or Park 51, or whatever it’s officially called now) can be built, that doesn’t mean it should. After all, the Nazis were allowed to march through Skokie, but that doesn’t mean they ought to have. By the same logic, just because the developer is allowed to build a mosque doesn’t mean that any clear-thinking individual ought to approve of the decision.
Similarly, the fact that the Cordoba House isn’t actually at Ground Zero is germane, but not decisive. It’s foolish to pretend that proximity doesn’t matter. The location, specifically how near it is to Ground Zero, was a key selling point for the group that bought the site—they wanted a site for moderate Muslims to “push back against the extremists.” If the mosque is close enough to make such a point, then it is close enough to draw criticisms of being insensitive.
Nevertheless, the main argument in favor of allowing the mosque is more principled. Put simply, it is that the moderates behind the plan for the mosque (or Islamic community center) should not be conflated with the extremists who perpetrated the attacks of September 11th. The moderates are not to blame for the actions of the terrorists.
Well, why the hell not? Too often religion gets away with this slight of hand by which it skirts responsibility for the atrocities carried out in its name. Like disingenuous tobacco executives, proponents of religion assert that they are not responsible if their product is abused. Except that unlike cigarettes, which the informed can choose to steer clear of, we are all potential victims of religious extremism.
When other ideologies are taken to extremes they are forever sullied by the association. The writings of Karl Marx are connected to the Soviet Union and the atrocities of other “communist” regimes. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution is subjected to scorn by those who unfairly link it with Social Darwinism, eugenics, and the Nazis. While this is unfair, though, these theories have an inherent defense. Though a Marxist may have his work cut out for him (and, depending on the audience, so would an evolutionary biologist), he can rationally explain why Soviet (et al.) atrocities were based on manipulations or misinterpretations of Marxist theory. In other words, those schools of thought appeal to reason.
Religion, though, has no such defense. This is not to say that people don’t try to separate the radicals from the moderates. Again and again we hear about how the version of jihad practiced by Osama bin Laden isn’t “true Islam,” and how Fred Phelps is not a real Christian. But the truth is that the difference between religious radicals and religious moderates is a difference of degree, not one of kind. This is to say that all religions ultimately appeal to faith, and not to reason or evidence.
Of course, this doesn’t prevent religion’s defenders from hiding behind claims of “misinterpretation.” Plenty of people claim that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are not fair interpretations of the text of the Qur’an.* The problem, though, is that when the ultimate test of something is faith, then there is no way of accurately resolving these disputes. If Tariq Ramadan interprets the Qur’an as a text of peace, but Osama bin Laden interprets it as a divine mandate for holy war, then how do we determine who is right? The claim that most Muslims agree with the former claim is of no help—it’s not like religion is a democracy, and whichever sect has the most followers wins. What seems like a “misinterpretation” to some may be the “word of God” as another sees it. After all, think of how minute a fraction of practicing Christians follow a literal interpretation of the Bible—all believers do some form of personal interpretation.
*Although how violent jihad is an inaccurate interpretation of “slay the pagans wherever you find them” is another question.
Furthermore, only when the text is treated as the word of God do these disagreements over interpretation become so important. After all, there are discrepancies and apparent contradictions in the writings of nearly every philosopher, scientist, and political theorist, and the students of those thinkers often have no way of resolving these tensions. In these cases, though, the text itself is not the last word. The theory of evolution does not depend on what Darwin thought or wrote, just as Sigmund Freud is not the final word on psychoanalysis. None of these schools of thought treats its source as infallible. The ultimate tests of these theories are based on reason and evidence, and how they are applied to the world.
For religion, though, the only “evidence” that matters is the word of whichever deity that religion professes belief in, and the only “access” (apart from whatever delusions and hallucinations we may have) we have to this word are the infamously contradictory and unreliable texts that millennia of parsing have not been able to definitively pin down. So referring to al Qaeda and Scott Roeder and their ilk as “extremists” who practice a bastardized religion is just silly—it is just as likely that the more moderate forms of religion are the “bastardized” ones.
In other words, it makes no sense to arbitrarily draw a line and say that versions of a religion on one side are OK, and the versions on the other are not. Either religion is acceptable or it’s not, and allowing the “moderate” and “peaceful” Cordoba House near Ground Zero is a not-so-tacit endorsement of religion.
And this, in my mind, is inexcusable. Pretending that religion was not the primary, explicitly stated motives of the 19 men who flew airplanes into buildings with the intent of murdering as many people as they could is beyond naïve—it is downright dangerous. Religion, no matter how peaceful and moderate it professes itself to be, empowers people to act without regard to reason, evidence, or even the feelings of others. It encourages people to believe that they have divine permission—even a divine order—for behavior that is otherwise unjustifiable. In some cases, this leads to violence on a colossal scale. It may only be a few, but 9/11 proved that it only takes one to do terrible damage, so it seems perfectly reasonable to want to keep religion—of any sort—as far as away from Ground Zero as possible.
People shouldn’t approve of the Ground Zero mosque for the same reason that they shouldn’t approve of any mosque (or any house of worship): Religions are dangerous. This is true everywhere, but it’s more obvious near Ground Zero. If this fact makes me intolerant, then so be it: Some things don’t deserve to be tolerated.