The Fires of Hatred


US Ignores Religion's Fringes

Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.

- Ernest Hemingway

Photo by Christopher Bliss

by Mary Zeiss Stange

The chilling "last night" letter found in the belongings of three of the 11 September hijackers, which urged them to "stand fast, God will stand with those who stood fast," underscores that the terrorists believed they were doing God's will.  But with knee-jerk anti-Muslim sentiment cropping up across the nation, it's tempting to say - as several commentators have - that the killers' beliefs were "not Islamic."  Sadly, they were - in precisely the same way that Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's blaming the attacks on feminists and homosexuals was Christian.  Like it or not, this tragedy is rooted, at least in part, in an American tendency to demonise or trivialise what we would rather not understand about the way religious groups outside "the mainstream" think.

Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to be ignorant about religion.  You would think the United States would have learned this by now.  Yet when it comes to matters of religious difference, people who study religion for a living are, ironically, the last ones the government generally turns to for information or advice.  Too often, the outcome is tragic.

Religious-studies scholars tried, in vain, to persuade the FBI that David Koresh was neither a lunatic nor a charlatan, but a religious leader.  As such, he needed to be understood in the context of a version of Christianity that might have looked bizarre or misguided to most Americans, but was nonetheless deeply meaningful for Koresh and his followers - so meaningful, indeed, that they were willing to die for it near Waco, Texas, on 19 April 1993.  But it was easier to write off the Branch Davidians as brainwashed or crazy than to acknowledge that they were so committed to a cause that they gave their lives for it.  Most Americans are embarrassed by such a depth of religious or political passion.

Twisted takes on retribution

I am not likening the engineers of the 11 September tragedies to Koresh.  If anything, they have more in common with Timothy McVeigh, whose twisted, paramilitary take on Christian retribution led him to avenge the Davidians' deaths by bombing the Alfred P Murrah Building in Oklahoma City 2 years later.  But it is far easier to dismiss or demonise religiously rooted political perspectives we don't really want to understand than to try to comprehend them, which might lend them even a fragment of credibility.  It is easier to castigate their adherents as barbarians or fanatics than to acknowledge that, yet again, we have failed to learn from our mistakes.

How and why

I have taught religion to undergraduate students for more than 20 years - since shortly before the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran and the ensuing hostage crisis.  I told my students then - and ever since - that the point of learning about religious perspectives that are divergent (indeed, sometimes dangerously so) from one's own is that until we recognise how and why religiously "other" people think and act, we will never function effectively in a global community of conflicting religious and political interests.

Relatively bright 19-year-olds get the point with little prodding - unlike the US government.

I am not blaming the victims, let alone justifying what happened 11 September.  But we need to understand why it happened: simply and sadly, religion can drive some people to do terrible things.  The great tragedy is that McVeigh and last month's killers were not deluded: they acted with cold rationality.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, recently argued in the Washington Post that religious groups such as bin Laden's al-Qa'eda and America's Christian Identity, which apparently influenced McVeigh's thinking, represent democracy's greatest threat.  He was almost right: the greatest threat will be our continued blindness to the darker religious forces that drive some men's souls - and deeds.

Mary Zeiss Strange is associate professor of women's studies and religion at Skidmore College

Source: USA Today Thursday 4 October 2001

A Different Viewpoint

Nothing is more gratifying to a religionist than to destroy his enemies at the command of God.
Religious persecution springs from a due admixture of love towards God and hatred towards man.

– Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Gods” (1872)

Ministers wonder how I can be wicked enough to attack the Bible.

I will tell them: This book, the Bible, has persecuted, even unto death, the wisest and the best.  This book stayed and stopped the onward movement of the human race.  This book poisoned the fountains of learning and misdirected the energies of man.

This book is the enemy of freedom, the support of slavery.  This book sowed the seeds of hatred in families and nations, fed the flames of war, and impoverished the world.  This book is the breastwork of kings and tyrants — the enslaver of women and children.  This book has corrupted parliaments and courts.  This book has made colleges and universities the teachers of error and the haters of science.  This book has filled Christendom with hateful, cruel, ignorant and warring sects.  This book taught men to kill their fellows for religion’s sake.  This book funded the Inquisition, invented the instruments of torture, built the dungeons in which the good and loving languished, forged the chains that rusted in their flesh, erected the scaffolds whereon they died.  This book piled fagots about the feet of the just.  This book drove reason from the minds of millions and filled the asylums with the insane.

This book has caused fathers and mothers to shed the blood of their babes.  This book was the auction block on which the slave- mother stood when she was sold from her child.  This book filled the sails of the slave-trader and made merchandise of human flesh.  This book lighted the fires that burned "witches" and "wizards."  This book filled the darkness with ghouls and ghosts, and the bodies of men and women with devils.  This book polluted the souls of men with the infamous dogma of eternal pain.  This book made credulity the greatest of virtues, and investigation the greatest of crimes.  This book filled nations with hermits, monks and nuns — with the pious and the useless.  This book placed the ignorant and unclean saint above the philosopher and philanthropist.  This book taught man to despise the joys of this life, that he might be happy in another — to waste this world for the sake of the next.

I attack this book because it is the enemy of human liberty — the greatest obstruction across the highway of human progress.

Let me ask the ministers one question: How can you be wicked enough to defend this book?

- Robert Green Ingersoll - “About the Holy Bible” (1894)

I do not consider it a very important question whether Christ was the Son of God or not.  After all, what difference does it make?  If he never existed, we are under the same obligation to do what we believe is right; and believing that he was the Son of God or disbelieving it, is of no earthly importance.  If we are ever judged at all it will be by our actions, and not by our beliefs.  If Christ was good enough to die for me, he certainly will not be bad enough to damn me for honestly failing to believe in his divinity.

- Robert Green Ingersoll

Sources: cynical-c.com1, cynical-c.com2, cynical-c.com3

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