Personal faith can be an amazingly powerful thing; it can help someone come to grips with the loss of a loved one and it can bring about great changes in people who may have otherwise been lost. For these and many other reasons, personal faith and spirituality can be, and often are, beneficial to humanity. This faith can take many forms, and in almost every case it allows humans to transcend emotional and mental gulfs which they might otherwise have fallen into. Just as we as humans crave social, mental and physical fulfillment, there is an undeniable urge in all humans for spiritual fulfillment as well. We all want to believe in something.
Spirituality can take many forms. It can be mysticism (by which I mean religion), or it could be the belief in a defined set of principles and laws which govern the universe (by which I mean science). In either case, one’s set of beliefs brings comfort because it allows us to better explain the world around us. Whether you believe in a branch of mysticism, or in the scientific establishment, you are inevitably at some stage asked to believe in something which physically we cannot experience as humans and that therefore lays, for us blue-collar proletariat at least, purely in the realm of theory. In Christianity you are asked to believe things which we know in this era to be impossible; that a child of god can walk on water, turn water into goon, heal the sick and preach universal love all while hating on the gays. But science, too, asks us to believe something which, without the justification of the millions of hours of combined scientific research undertaken since the beginning of the modern scientific era, would also seem absurd; for instance, that when you rap your knuckle against a solid wooden table, your hand is hitting mainly empty space. It goes against one’s instinctual logic to believe that solid is not really solid, but by believing in the scientific process and trusting the scientific establishment at large, we can overcome this logical conflict.
Whatever form faith takes, at the personal level, it is an overwhelmingly good thing. It is when an organized hierarchy is formed to mobilize faith that the nasty bits; wars, famine, genocide, start to crop up.
Monopoly on morality
For millennia, organized religion has had a ‘monopoly on morality’, where a break with religion has been irrevocably linked with a break from morality. The idea that ordinary people could lead a just, loving and moral existence without acknowledging the existence of (and paying a tithe to) an ever-watchful deity was, when not dismissed as absurd, considered dangerous and corrosive to social stability.
It’s perhaps a shame that reforming, say, a drunk or violent person is still very much a spiritual endeavor, and the turning point of a person’s own reformation is often described as the very moment they ‘found god’. The grassroots nature of religious gatherings and the welcoming, open-arms approach are what make it such an effective tool for reforming such a person; a person who has been cut off from companionship and human interaction for so long, and suddenly finds themselves welcomed unequivocally into a tight-knit, supportive community in a local church or parish. The themes of repentance, forgiveness and acceptance that punctuate moderate Christianity lure in those outsiders, who have spent so long on the fringe, and beckon them into the safety of the flock. This is one of religion’s better outcomes, and once again occurs at a personal grass-roots level. But who is to say that such a person could not reform without ‘finding god’?
But I digress. It is not the religiosity or secularism of a particular group that I take issue with; it is the existence of an organized bureaucracy behind that religion. And more specifically, the potential for individuals or interest groups to co-opt and pervert that bureaucracy to further their own agendas. Just as the Nazi war machine allowed inherently evil deeds to be committed by a population who for the most part are not inherently evil themselves (the banality of evil), the scale and complexity of an organization such as the Catholic church, especially in pre-modern times, had the same effect. The Royal commission into institutionalised responses to sexual assault in Australia has recently cast some light into the Catholic Church’s inner-workings, and found that the sexual abuse of children by ordained ministers has been covered up by apparently moral members of the Church. These higher level members of the Church may not have committed pedophilia themselves, but by aggressively covering up and protecting their church they inevitably had to protect the priests responsible for the crimes, and so have facilitated the perpetuation of a most heinous and evil act, without direct involvement themselves.
Ignorance and violence
“There is far more violence in the Bible than in the Qur’an; the idea that Islam imposed itself by the sword is a Western fiction, fabricated during the time of the Crusades when, in fact, it was Western Christians who were fighting brutal holy wars against Islam.” – (Bistrich 2007)
Islam is not fundamentally violent, despite what many people either explicitly or implicitly believe. At least, it is no more so than Catholicism, or any other strict, dogmatic religion. The use of religion by extremists to justify the violent pursuit of their own goals is not unique to Islam, nor is it unique to the modern world. Intelligent and subversive people have been perverting the concept of divinity since the dawn of time. The levels of instability and violence being seen in much of the modern Islamic world need to be understood in a broader historical context if they are to be understood at all; if one wishes to compare two religions such as Islam and Christianity, as people often like to do, it requires us to look back at the entirety of each religion’s history.
When we do so, we see that Christianity has an incredibly violent past and has only ‘moderated’ in the past two or so centuries (which is to say that for the most part, Christians have stopped murdering each other at the genocidal rates of previous centuries). And upon closer examination, we see that the period in which this broad ‘moderation’ of Christianity took place also saw an unprecedented increase in education and the standard of living in the predominantly Christian West since the Industrial revolution. Before then, much like the men that today are blowing themselves up in Iraq, the average European for the majority of Christianity’s history was poor, rural and uneducated. It’s only in the last 150 years, with the industrial revolution in the West that the average Christian became more educated, richer, and urbanized.
In comparison, the world’s largest Muslim countries like Indonesia and Pakistan have spent those years instead toiling under, and finally throwing off the shackles of Western colonialism, and then trying to grow and prosper in a world where the political, military and cultural capital has been owned almost exclusively by Western, Christian elites. This has led to a continued imbalance in levels of education and quality of life between the Islamic and Christian worlds, and goes a long way to explain the levels of violence we see in the modern Islamic world. If you step back to a time when Europe’s population was largely uneducated and even the educated elites had some pretty messed up views (see: eugenics to justify slavery and colonialism), you’ll see Protestant and Catholics tearing each other apart in countless civil wars caused by sectarian tension, not to mention the long list of wars launched at the behest and with the blessing of the pope over the centuries (from the Crusades to the Spanish armada).
Today, just as it was then, it is far easier to radicalize a poor, uneducated rural person than it is a rich, educated urban one, as education and a good quality of life both tend to extinguish extremist tendencies (fat, middle-class Australians for example do not make good terrorists). Therefore to make a definitive statement about how violent a religion is without considering these and the myriad of other factors influencing the behaviour of Muslims around the world, is needless to say, a mug’s game.
They are all as bad as each other
To conclude, let me finish by reiterating that I do not try to argue that Islam is peaceful. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. What I am arguing is that it is not fundamentally more violent than any other organized, dogmatic religion. By examining the external pressures the Islamic world has faced in the past two centuries, and comparing them with those that have influenced the West in the same period, we start to get an understanding that all organized religions have the potential, in the right (or in this case, wrong) circumstances, to be violent.
If they truly believe eternal salvation is on the line, people will eat each other. These ones look hungry…
Andrea Bistrich, 2007, “Discovering the common grounds of world religions,” interview with Karen Armstrong, Share International, pp. 19-22.