Notes On Discussing Religion And Terrorism

I have had some of these thoughts in mind for months however it was a social media post with its limitations for discourse that has prompted me create this blog post.  The general thrust of the prompting post was about Islam and terrorism. I suspect that most have heard some variant such as either hinting implicitly or stating explicitly that Islam is somehow inextricably linked with terrorism. I am not going to quote or link to the exact prompting phrase because I want this essay to be more broad than just a simple reply to a Facebook comment.

It seems to me that when attributing an attribute or action as being necessarily part of some religion one runs up against several problems.  Such as who is the authority on the features of the religion. Is the authority comprised of the scholars of the religion who are inside the religion? If so which subgroup? For example in Islam is the authority the Shia or the Sunni or others?  And consider the example of Christianity; is the authority the Protestant, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Mormon or others? Is the authority comprised of the scholars of the religion who are outside the religion? Even looking in at a religion from the outside as a non-member the characteristics that the scholar considers as essential might vary depending on the background of the scholar such as historian, sociologist or philosopher.

And the question is further complicated by the question of what sources does one use to determine what is necessarily part of a religion; does one base the conclusions on the behavior of persons who claim to be adherents of the religion or on the texts held sacred by the religion?  But this raises a new set of questions such as if there are two or more groups each claiming to be the true adherents of some religion work and that the others are at best well meaning although confused or at worst are heretics and apostates.  Not an easy problem to solve. And if one tries to analyze a religion based on texts then one runs into the problem of which texts, which versions, which translations, etc.  Not to mention that religious texts typically are full of allegory, fables, metaphors and literary allusions; not to mention the obvious inaccuracies, contradictions and what might appear to some being as simple nonsense.

Now certainly I am not saying that distinctions are impossible; only that they are more difficult than we often realize.  And in particular I suggest caution when either embracing distinctions which reinforce out pre-existing opinions or rejecting distinctions which are counter to our pre-existing opinions.

And this is not just idle speculation. Christianity is sometimes called a peaceful religion but tell that to the people of B├ęziers.  And remember those that suffered in the religious wars in Europe just a few centuries ago.  Also let us not forget the troubles in Northern Ireland.  Even in this supposedly modern era one finds persons around the world claiming to be Christian and engaging in what are generally considered terrorists attacks. So is Christianity a religion of peace or a religion of violence and terror?  How does one the one hand balance the quiet Quaker couple working at a soup kitchen feeding the poor against the phrase "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword."

So is there any major religion that has have the problems I mentioned above?  Maybe the Jain. Perhaps others but I think focusing on the religion misses the larger question.  At the risk of some over simplification I will pose the question as:  is it outside the bounds of ethical and moral behavior to harm, kill, assault or otherwise terrorize someone because that person holds different beliefs on religion?  Some people say No and some say Yes.  This is I suggest the crucial point; that once a persons adopt the position that others can live with their beliefs whatever those believes might be then that is what is critical.  If everyone took the position of religious tolerance then that universal religious tolerance would not necessarily lead to the end of violence and terrorism because there are other causes than just religion.  However sometimes a person's experience might make it difficult to understand that there is more to a religion that what their immediate experience.  For example consider those persons who lands were confiscated and who were forced to work building missions for the Spanish conquerors; it might seem that the religion of the Roman Catholic Church was one that was inherently violent and terrorist.

And as a purely practical matter I suggest that attempting to characterize an entire religion as inherently violent or terrorist is probably counter-productive.  Consider that humans tend to have much of their sense of self identity bound up in group identities such as Muslim, Christian, American, Egyptian, Republican, 49er Faithful or Raider Nation and so forth.  Of these religion is one of the strongest so let us consider a religion which has two groups of persons who claim that their group and only their group are the true adherents.  The first group is comprised of those who take the position that violence against non-believers or heretics is not a part of the religion.  The second group is comprised of those who take the position that violence is justified against non-believers or heretics is a necessary part of the religion.  As an outsider do you really want to be supporting the position of the second group?  In most cases probably not.  Actually I suggest that in most cases the best thing the outsider can do is shut up about internal theological disputes and instead just take a pro-peace stance without criticizing or praising the religion one way or the other.  If the persons in the second group start adopting the position of persons in the first group then so much the better.  And likely there will be those still in the second group saying they have the only true version of the religion and that those in the first group need to get into the second group to be truly part of the religion.  A person on the outside may not like the religion at all and thinks that for both groups abandoning the religion would be best. However for this person on the outside I suggest do not become a megaphone for a position that is the worst of the two possibilities just because it is not the best that you can imagine.

I realize the previous paragraph has been a bit convoluted so let me give a historical example; evolution.  Christians had a split which can be roughly categorized as compatiblist and non-compatiblist.  The compatiblist position is basically that accepting evolution does not mean one must reject Christianity.  The non-compatiblist position is basically that evolution is not compatible with Christianity. Of course there are variations and nuances which would take a book to cover but for sake of this discussion consider just these two positions which are theological and not scientific  Now imagine someone on the outside of Christianity who wants people to accept evolution so that school biology textbooks are scientifically accurate since the textbook standards are set in their jurisdiction by an elected board. I think the best course of action for this concerned person is not take a theological position which says that Christianity and evolution are not compatible therefore persons must give up Christianity because Christianity is false because it does not accept evolution.  Given human nature I suspect that it not be very successful and for those persons who are inside Christianity who are compatiablist and who also want good science textbooks it would likely be a hindrance.

So what to do?  In this example I think the better action is to promote accurate science and to be quiet about theology.  My general advice is be a megaphone for science and not a megaphone for a theological position which at best you might not fully understand or at worst is opposed to what you claim to desire.

But what about terrorism?  My suggestion is to promote peace, liberty, benevolence and the other similar humanist virtues and be quiet about theology.  Avoid taking a position that pushes people who want to maintain their group identify into the arms of those who advocate violence as necessary for being a member of that group.

At this point there is probably at least one person ready to claim that I am coddling terrorism or that I am a naive fool or a pacifist; the short answer is that I am not a pacifist, I am not coddling terrorism and that I am working on reducing the amount of error and foolishness in my opinions just like I hope we are all.  What I am saying is that there is a way to oppose terrorism which makes sense to me and which I suggest using.  And I feel that there is a way which I consider counter-productive and this is what I suggest avoiding. And for the person who wants to claim that I am some sort of cultural relativist who thinks all cultures are equal; the short answer is no I am not.  And someone else probably has fingers over the keys right now wanting to ask if I have abandoned self-defense or the defense of others who are innocent?  Again the answer is no; what I am saying is that a good first principle of defense is do not weaken your own position while strengthening your attacker.

Now some might ask what about saying Buddhism is a religion of peace, Islam is a religion of peace or something similar.  My first response would be politely to ask about your qualifications to be making theological statements about some religion, for example list the texts of the religion with which you are familiar.  My second response might be to want to know why the statement is being made.  Making the statement could conceivably be an informed analysis; or it could be make in order to signal that one is hoping that all adherents of the religion in question will behave peacefully; or is it that one wants to signal their disagreement which those who are bashing the religion.  My suggestion is to avoid theological disputes unless one is well versed the appropriate theological tradition.  Persons who persist on making theological statements about religions in which they are not well versed might find themselves viewed in the same manner as the flat earth advocate who is attempting to lecture a gathering of geologists on the structure of the earth.  And just another note of caution; let us avoid confusing statements of wishful thinking with clear and concise analysis.

Thus I advocate peace, liberty, benevolence and the other humanist virtues as the best first step.

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