Should there be a mosque anywhere near here?

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.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Douglas on August 28, 2010 at 2:25 PM

    This is a clever argument, but I think you’ve put an unfair spin on a few things.

    1. “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.”

    Again, this isn’t entirely inaccurate, but there’s a spin. When it comes to moral codes, for example, evidence does exist. Think of the ten commandments. Sure, it’s based on the irrational notion of God’s direct command, but if someone goes out and murders someone, it’s pretty clear that they’re in violation of a commandment. Any differences in interpretation would be no different than the existing debates in the secular legal system. Just because a religion ultimately appeals to faith doesn’t mean that it excludes reason and evidence, and this is a crucial point. The unfortunate fact is that these two groups of people, the moderates and extremists, are still both labeled as Muslims. This is somewhat like viewing Catholics and Mormons as being of the same religion–a question of degree rather than kind. I think both groups would object to that characterization on grounds of reason and evidence, even though they ultimately claim faith in the same God and savior. You make the fair point that the entirety of moral systems in religions are based on faith instead of political philosophy or rational ethics, but this doesn’t justify a conflation of the moderates and extremists. If you believed that logic, you would have to also (which perhaps you do, as the last sentence of your penultimate paragraph suggests) vehemently oppose a church or a synagogue near Ground Zero, since Muslims, Christians, and Jews appeal to the same faith-based notions of morality and worship the same God. The problem with this, though, is that you can then extend your critique–that religion doesn’t appeal to rationality–to other institutions or beliefs. Can a New York bookstore sell copies of the Qur’an or the Bible? Should street preachers be allowed to give sermons in the vicinity of the area? Can conspiracy theorists who claim that 9/11 was an inside job print out fliers within state lines? Can outspoken Holocaust deniers be allowed entry into the state? And why does this just apply to Ground Zero? If religion (or other forms of demonstrable irrationality) can lead to terrible things like 9/11, rare though they may be, then it seems perfectly reasonable to want to keep religion–of any sort–as far away from the United States as possible. Now maybe you’re making this argument, but this simply reflects my original point that you’re really just spinning this issue into a blanket critique of religion–which is fair, but not particularly useful to most people considering this case.

    2. 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.

    Was religion the primary motive of the 9/11 attacks? There are many “pagan” nations in the world, and yet this attack was and remains unparalleled in scale. Yes, religion was the primary justification, but I think the motive was quite clearly political. You are correct that it empowers people to act without regard to reason, but it doesn’t necessarily require or inspire them to do so–certainly not in the form of violence. Put another way, if Islam did not exist, is it not possible, even if far less likely, that such attacks could have still taken place as a reaction to American aggression in the Middle East? Could it have not been the result of irrational nationalism as opposed to religion? Certainly religion exacerbated the political tensions–this is without a doubt. But if you grant that it could have occurred in the absence of religion, then perhaps your brand of justified intolerance should be extended to irrational political beliefs as well, as I’ve touched on earlier.


    • Posted by John S on August 28, 2010 at 3:53 PM

      In response to #1: Yes, this is basically a general anti-religion argument. I would be opposed to a church or synagogue being built near Ground Zero and am, in fact, against pretty much every house of worship everywhere. As Voltaire said, “whatever you do, crush the infamous thing.”

      At the same time, though, I think it’s unfair to extend my argument to denying outspoken Holocaust deniers entry to the state. For one, my argument isn’t that religion is just unpleasant, but that it’s dangerous, and I don’t see how 9/11 conspiracy theorists or Holocaust deniers are similarly dangerous. More importantly, though, I think it’s very important to concede the legal point–I don’t want the government denying access to certain viewpoints, however noxious. But legal tolerance is not the same as community standards. We can tolerate Holocaust deniers, but if one of them wanted to stage an event at Lincoln Center, s/he probably wouldn’t be allowed. Similarly, the fact that some people are treating Park 51 (or whatever it’s called now) like a triumph of liberalism and diversity is ridiculous.

      To point #2: This is an interesting, if ultimately flawed argument. Perhaps my language is flawed, in saying that religion was a “motive,” when the grievances of al Qaeda were political. And it is possible to oppose the things that the terrorists oppose WITHOUT religion, but it was most certainly religion that empowered them to resort to suicidal violence in the name of their cause. I’ll quote Sam Harris on this:

      “Anyone who imagines that terrestrial concerns account for Muslim terrorism must answer questions of the following sort: Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal, and far more cynical, than any that Britain, the United States, or Israel have ever imposed upon the Muslim world. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against Chinese noncombatants? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam. This is not to say that Buddhism could not help inspire suicidal violence. It can, and it has (Japan, World War II). But this concedes absolutely nothing to the apologists for Islam. As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism. One need not work nearly so hard as a Muslim. The truth that we must finally confront is that Islam contains specific notions of martyrdom and jihad that fully explain the character of Muslim violence.”

      So yes, people can resort to irrational violence based on a number of causes (nationalism, for one), but religion makes it much easier, and specific religions are more dangerous than others. And while you can point out the irrationalities of other ideologies, there is no real way of calling one religion any more irrational than another, since they all ultimately appeal to faith.


  2. Posted by Douglas on August 28, 2010 at 5:03 PM

    To address your response:

    1. For one, my argument isn’t that religion is just unpleasant, but that it’s dangerous, and I don’t see how 9/11 conspiracy theorists or Holocaust deniers are similarly dangerous.

    Those particular examples aren’t ostensibly dangerous, but I with a bit of research I imagine I could come up with others (the KKK, perhaps, or other irrational hate groups) that operate more or less independently of religion. Many other religions are comparatively harmless, but you would group them all together because the Islamic extremists prove the potential for religious evil, right? For this reason I would say that even one example of secular irrational violence would require you to similarly collectivize secular examples and treat them as you would treat religion. I suppose it’s also a matter of scale–the KKK will probably never kill as many innocent people as the 9/11 terrorists have, so at some point we have to define what constitutes “dangerous”, and to do so with a death toll seems crude. This is probably beside the point though, as I think you will grant that secular irrational groups can be as dangerous to the United States as, say, mainstream Christianity. But you are talking about community standards, and so perhaps dealing with nebulous matters of scale is excusable.

    I suppose, though, that what I’m really objecting to is the way your argument conflates moderates and extremists. Are moderate–and let’s not even call these particular Muslims moderate, because that’s probably not to their full credit–are Muslims who ardently oppose violence and hatred any more dangerous than outspoken Holocaust deniers? Your argument depends on the conflation of all Muslims, and that conflation is based on the notion of analogous models of faith. But this is in some ways my next point: for many religious people, it’s not actually about faith at all. It’s about reason, and rationality, and evidence (i.e. pre-existing conditions), and faith is simply a false respite for the intellectually weary when atheists come around asking for proof. When viewing faith in this way, as mostly a vestige of long-dead icons and lightly-considered parables, it is virtually irrelevant to the question at hand. In other words, people frequently don’t act purely on faith. I’ll borrow the Sam Harris style of reasoning: why don’t we see as much Islamic extremist aggression in Switzerland, or Canada, or North Korea (a country replete with aggressive pagans)? I know that you’re not arguing the opposite of this point, but I do think that you overstate the importance of faith. Hence:

    2. I think you respond to my point with an interesting, if ultimately flawed argument. Sam Harris is correct in his observation, but perhaps misguided in his inference. I think instead we could take a more deterministic approach, and say that the people who self-identify as Tibetan Buddhists have done so for the same reason that they would not resort to suicide bombing; it’s a complex correlation. I don’t mean to be naive here–certainly religion plays a large part, as I initially conceded, but I think you can also flip Harris’s question and see my point: Why hasn’t Buddhism caught on in the Middle East? Why is it that Buddhist missionaries would face more difficulty in Iraq than in Berkeley, CA? Again, I know I’m bordering on naive here. However, I think that politics, geography, and culture shape the attitudes (and I include religion as a component of attitude) of people to an incredible extent. I also don’t mean to offer a cop-out. This doesn’t excuse violence and it doesn’t fully exculpate religion, but if you view religion as a product, as I do, then it is mistaken to label religion as squarely causal. Think also of the Japanese kamikaze bombers or banzai attackers, who operated under a much more nationalistic pretense than any kind of faith-based system. The same would be true of the Nazis. I’m not sure I buy your claim that religion makes this type of violence much easier; I think that religion is secondary to politics and that, just as it has the potential to enhance and complement irrational political ideology, it can also stand in its way and oppose it (as it did, for certain groups, in the case of abolition and civil rights).


    • Posted by John S on August 28, 2010 at 7:38 PM

      To address your response to my response to your response:

      1. Despite only using one Roman numeral, you actually include several points here, so I’ll break it down even further.

      1a. First, you point out the potential danger of non-religious fringe groups or hate groups, like the KKK or similar societies: “I would say that even one example of secular irrational violence would require you to similarly collectivize secular examples and treat them as you would treat religion.” This is wrong, for the same reasons I don’t think the ideas of Marx or Nietzsche are to blame for the violence carried out in their names. That is, these things do not ultimately appeal to faith. In other words, they need to justify their own righteousness with something other than just “God said so.” Of course most dangerous fringe groups, like the KKK, appeal to prejudice and anger more than they appeal evidence or reason, but I think it is for exactly this reason that they remain fringe groups. Which brings us to….

      1b. You ask, “Are Muslims who ardently oppose violence and hatred any more dangerous than outspoken Holocaust deniers?” I would say yes for the simple reason that Muslims of all kinds license the views of extremists. In other words, moderate Muslims make Islam acceptable, which in turn makes alternative models of Islam acceptable, which, eventually, can make Islamic extremism seem acceptable to some. To illustrate, why is the KKK way less of a threat today than it was 50 years ago? Is it because Americans have become so much more sophisticated and reasonable than they used be? We both know that can’t be it. It’s far more likely that the KKK is less dangerous because the violent racism it espouses can’t exist without the more common, nonviolent, casual racism that permeated the South during Jim Crow. In just the same way that casual racists make violent racists more common, moderate Muslims (even the Muslims who ardently oppose violence) make Islamic extremism possible. Which leads to….

      1c. You accuse me of conflating all Muslims, which I don’t think is fair. I concede that not all Muslims are the same, just like not all Christians are the same, and not all New Yorkers are the same, etc. But I do think all religious people, by definition, believe certain truths based on faith. You say that for some religious people it’s not about faith at all. I have to confess that I don’t understand this point. What is religion if not a set of beliefs grounded by faith? Beliefs arrived at by reason, rationality, and evidence are not religious beliefs at all. Of course, even religious people do, as you say, act for reasons other than religion. You ask why we don’t see Islamic aggression in other countries. Well, that’s very clearly because other countries haven’t committed the kind of affronts to the Islamic faith that the US has (i.e. supporting Israel, putting bases in Saudi Arabia, etc.). So yes, again, there is some politics involved in the motives here, but it’s quite obviously faith–and Islam in particular–that plays the biggest role.

      2. This entire point is a much more general, grander debate than this started out as. If I’m reading you right, you are saying that religion is merely a product, and not a cause, of certain realities, either political, geographical, or otherwise. I would probably disagree. After all, Islam and Buddhism had taken hold in certain parts of the globe where they have ended up prominent long before the geo-political realities of today emerged. In other words, it’s kind of like you are saying that the Middle East sought Islam as a way of combating American hegemony, which only makes sense if you completely ignore the timeline. In a more general sense, though, you just seem less willing than I am to single out religion as a source of violence, pointing out things like the Nazis (interestingly, though, I would call the Japanese kamikaze bombers a similar product of faith-based thinking, since Japan treated the emperor as a deity). But the Nazis needed a very specific set of historical circumstances to arise, whereas religion has been killing people since the first false prophet hallucinated a god. Obviously religion is not the ONLY thing that causes irrational violence, but it’s almost certainly the most common.


  3. Posted by Douglas on August 28, 2010 at 9:48 PM

    1a. Okay, this is a fine line here. While it’s true that these groups don’t appeal to faith, they don’t exactly appeal to rationality. This is the fine line, because while you or I would say that they don’t appeal to rationality, and despite the fact that many of their claims are objectively, demonstrably false or empirically baseless, they might claim that they are being rational. To that, I can only say that many religious people don’t view faith and reason as mutually exclusive–the point being that, if we don’t grant that religious people can be ultimately appealing to a compatible fusion of reason and faith (which we shouldn’t), then we can’t grant that Nazis or the KKK appeal to rationality. Although faith is not substituted, what is the difference? Are you making your argument only against faith groups, or against groups that don’t appeal to rationality, of which faith groups are the most common example?

    1b. Your question about the KKK is interesting, but again I think a variation shows my point as well. Let’s consider that churches in the antebellum South maintained a healthy brand of faith-based racism (I can provide evidence if needed). Now let’s ask: why is that type of racism way less common in southern churches today than it was (even) 50 years ago? Is it because everyone had a religious epiphany? Did “faith” tell these people that black people were in fact equal and not designed to be slaves? Of course not. Again, it was a political (or economical, or whatever else) shift that effected a change in the largely correspondent institution of religion. I’m not saying your way off base to ascribe evil to religion, but there’s certainly plenty of room for disagreement.

    I’m still considering the argument that all Muslims license extremists. My intuition is that yes, that’s true, in the same way that any irrationality (such as faith) allows more intense variations of irrationality to arise, but for me that doesn’t do anything productive; it’s just a general argument against irrationality and religion. I buy those arguments, but again I don’t think that they’re useful in this case. I could say that faith of all kinds license the views of extremists, and therefore no religion of any sort should exist in our country. Again, I agree, but that’s a little sweeping for this particular case of the mosque. Or maybe you were just answering my question as an aside–this entire point might be trivial; the significance is really dependent on your answer to my closing questions in 1a.

    1c. This is my weakest argument, in the sense that I can’t really demonstrate it–it’s really more of an opinion. But I think the crux of the issue is that what religious people are “by definition” is not what religious people are “by observation”, or empirically. I’m not trying to play a trump card here, but as someone who once identified as a Christian, I’m well aware of the perpetual tension between belief and action. The Bible, in my mind and in the minds of many Christians, is pretty clear on a few things, such as: if you’re not Christian, you go to hell; God heavily disfavors the rich; the primary mission of every Christian is evangelism–the list goes on. Now, whether or not you agree with each point is irrelevant. The idea is that many Christians (and other religious types) continually and willfully disregard what they believe to be the word of God. It’s not a matter of trying and failing; in many cases one doesn’t even try. So the idea of doing something just because God said so doesn’t actually carry a lot of weight with many religious people. This is one of the reasons I left the church (that and the Cole thing). Again, this is mostly my own observation–I’m not trying to put this forth as hard evidence. But let’s think also about why the executors of 9/11 carried out that mission. Could it be simply that God told them to? Or is it more likely that someone, posturing as an agent of God (such as a priest), convinced them to? So sure, maybe the guys who were on the plane believed that they were carrying out the work of God. But what about the people who inspired them, who indoctrinated them, to do it? Were they not politically motivated? Or let’s look at the Japanese pilots as faith-based: would they have killed themselves for no reason than the emperor’s amusement? Would they have tortured their own children just because the emperor deity said so? Maybe, maybe not. It’s speculation, granted, but the point, as I stated the first time, is that religion isn’t exactly a motive, or even a reason, but rather an empowering rationalization. The motives can, and I think do, supersede religion. Again, think of southern churches now and southern churches 200 years ago–in some cases their views are now diametrically opposed, and it’s not because God changed his mind. I guess I’m also saying that, as an atheist, clearly these claims as to God’s word are untrue, so if someone says to me “God told me to attack the United States”, I won’t believe them, and I probably won’t even offer up the condescending “I believe you believe that.” With the rare exceptions of the truly delusional, everyone else who would say that is rationalizing, which means it’s not a reason. I’ll come back to this in my next point.

    2. Yes, I am less willing to single out religion…and I think the Nazis illustrate my point. As you say, a set of circumstances were required–circumstances that did not explicitly include an appeal to faith. I’m not saying that the Middle East sought Islam as a way of combating American hegemony, but perhaps they did seek (that’s maybe to active–let’s say they became more receptive to) a jihadist interpretation of Islam to that same end. In the absence of Islam, perhaps it would have been an allegiance to an Emperor or the notion of a superior race that would have served as the apparent justification. Yes, religion can be a tool to rationalize evil, but then what motivates one to wield that tool? This is my point from above about delusion and rationalizing. I think that if people acted solely on faith, with that as their ultimate motive, we would see a much greater sweep of irrationality. Christians would give up all their worldly wealth and become missionaries, Islamic extremists would kill pagans far less discriminately, peace loving Muslims would build mosques at Ground Ze–okay, not that one, but you get the point. Sure, flying planes into buildings isn’t exactly rational to begin with, but it’s not coincidence that in these types of cases, in addition to the word of God, there’s always another plausibly convenient reason or two lying around. This just comes down to my belief that people shape religion to suit their own lives, not the other way around. I suppose there’s no resolving this, but at least (or so it appears) we’re honing in on our disjunction.


    • Posted by John S on August 29, 2010 at 12:50 AM

      1a. To your final question, I would say that I’m directing my argument at groups that view faith as a substitute for rationality. In other words, we can both agree that the ideologies of the KKK and the Nazis are based more on bigotry and hatred than any kind of rationality or evidence, but followers of those beliefs may deny that and, more importantly, when that fact is exposed, it drastically hurts the appeal of that cause. I’m not sure I’m conveying my point (and all this talk of Nazis and the KKK makes the argument seem very abstract), so let’s look at the current debate over gay marriage. Plenty of same-sex marriage’s opponents have made the argument that allowing it damages traditional marriage or harms children somehow, and the judge in the recent court case demanded to see evidence or a justifiable defense of such a position. When none was offered, he ruled against Prop 8. Now, this obvs didn’t convince all the gay marriage opponents that they were wrong, but it did expose how much of that side’s argument was based on fear and bigotry. In other words, even in a case that as prone to extremism as this is, the demand for reason can expose the feebleness of one side. This doesn’t mean it will convince everyone (some people will always cling to prejudices), but it will convince most impartial observers.

      Religion, though, views faith as a substitute for evidence and reason, and so no such argument can convince them. There is no other way that, for example, a debate like Evolution vs. Biblical Creation could still be going on. In terms of reason and evidence, there has never been a more lopsided debate in history, and yet a majority of Americans still believe that latter or, in some “more reasonable” instances, view the two as compatible. The lack of evidence for Biblical Creation actually makes some people believe it MORE because it is either A) a test of faith or B) so preposterous that it must be true.

      1b+c. I group these two together because they both seem to revolve around the same general idea of rationalizing religion. This is actually a really interesting subject, and I think it’s an important one that you’ve brought up: “The idea is that many Christians (and other religious types) continually and willfully disregard what they believe to be the word of God. It’s not a matter of trying and failing; in many cases one doesn’t even try.” I think this is true of every faith, more or less. People contort what they believe to suit the life they want to lead. I think this kind of rationalizing religion is the most common in America today (and I actually find pretty deplorable; if you’re going to be irrational, at least be hardcore about it), and that for most of them religion probably does just serve as an “empowering rationalization.” So they wouldn’t sacrifice their children, or slaughter a race, or commit some sort of jihad, etc. Basically, these people are more concerned with social norms than divine grace.

      But I think it flows both ways. In other words, people contort religion to support the lives they want, and they want the kind of life their religion approves of. So I don’t think it’s as clear as political or economic changes altering religion for these people. I think as any aspect of culture changes (technology, taboos, economics, politics, religion, etc.), the others all change in response.

      And while these practicers of religion are less dangerous, they DO still license extremism by granting certain things based on faith. And while most people wouldn’t approve of someone saying “I killed my child because God said so,” the fact that they all claim to worship a God that DID in fact command a parent to kill his child means that it’s more likely someone will internalize that message.

      More importantly, though, I think it’s wrong to assume that EVERY believer behaves this way. In other words, I think there is a large group–a minority, but still large–of religious people who truly internalize the dogma and DO believe in the letter, as well as the spirit, of religious law. In other words, I don’t think that the “truly delusional” are as rare as you say they are–I think in order to kill yourself on behalf of a faith you have to REALLY believe in that faith.

      2. You concede that “religion can be a tool to rationalize evil” but I think it goes beyond rationalization. Again, I think most of the Islamic terrorists are not the casual believers who go to church once a week–I think they are generally sincere believers that violence is God’s will. And there may be motives for terrorists besides religion, but the fact remains that Muslims are not the only group to face oppression in the world, and yet they are pretty much the only group that blows themselves up in statistically significant numbers. I mean, just view it objectively. There are Groups A, B, C, D. They all face similar amounts of bigotry, oppression, etc. depending on where you are on the globe. But Group C seems to commit far more violent atrocities that Groups A,B or D. Is this probably a coincidence, or is there something about Group C that makes it more prone to violence?


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