A Religion of Peace or War: Both Actually.


Calling any religion, a religion of peace is a problem. We might wish they were, and our media takes every opportunity to tell us that they are despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but that isn’t the same as it being true. Blanket statements to the effect that they are, negate any need for criticism or improvement and for this reason are not just misleading, but dangerous. Tony Blair would have us believe that violence in the name of religion is  an ‘abuse of religion’ and a ‘perversion of faith.’ This is probably a well intentioned attempt at preserving community cohesion, but it’s anything but true as Ian Reader, a Professor of Religious Studies at Lancaster University succinctly points out. Such sentiments enable the ‘moderate’ believer to rest easy, knowing that they’re unlikely to have to change their opinions, but then the fanatic can equally believe that they don’t need to either, because after all, theirs is a religion of peace too.

Freedom of Religion, and Freedom from Religion

If you ask people what their problem with religion is, I’d wager they’d say they something like they don’t mind people believing whatever they want, they just have an issue when people socially and politically organise around it, try to use it to reduce the rights of others, and fill the heads of children with the patently untrue. Whilst everyone has the right to believe what they want under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), if you look at the evidence rather than assume this declaration represents everyone’s views, you’ll find many who don’t agree that they’re universal at all – it’s why the Cairo Declaration was designed to be subservient to Islam for example. That means 45-member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC, now Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) don’t recognise freedom of religion in the same way as the UDHR does, in fact they accord privilege to one religious group over the others. Human Rights legislation is about protecting all people, and often becomes willfully conflated, as extending to the protection of individual beliefs themselves, or religion as a concept, as if it were a monolith worthy of being preserved unaltered.

This is particularly worrying when individual abusive beliefs within religion, conflict with the Human Rights designed to protect people. Leviticus allows bed and breakfast owners to feel justified in their prejudice against LGBT communities, as well as providing an ample excuse for Ugandans to murder them, and religion in general gives Northern Irish politicians the ability to attempt to exempt religious people from equality laws. Also, countries like Saudi Arabia who don’t subscribe to UDHR along with 13 other nations are able to execute atheists and apostates based on the Quran. These are only a few examples where scripture, and beliefs within specific religious communities, shouldn’t be protected under ‘freedom of religion,’ but should perhaps be viewed through a lens of freedom from religion. It’s also why worrying about the evils of atheism (which has no dogma influencing behaviour this way or that), is in no way comparable to the troubling beliefs of religious groups (who have specific guidelines regarding how to treat others). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also says people should have the “freedom to change his religion or belief,” which is completely at odds with religions where apostasy is punishable by ostracising people for a change of opinion or killing them. Such an attitude allows anyone that wants to, the ability to justify their actions no matter how abhorrent, claiming religious persecution when they’re challenged, and this needs to change.

Reformation, not Moderation

Islam in particular needs reformers right now more than ‘moderates,’ as Christianity did historically (which could still do with a bit of improvement). Those who recognise the need to protect the right to believe, but also the need to criticise beliefs, the social policy that they justify, and the actions of believers, should they be damaging to others. Reformers will point out when people like Reza Aslan, an extremely well informed scholar of religion, – as he likes to point out by listing his PhDs – seems to use reflexive apologetics despite probably knowing better. He tends to downplay and often deny any link between bad scripture, belief and behaviour. He also claims that somehow women are ‘100% equal’ in Muslim majority countries, with more women having been elected there than elsewhere, when this isn’t the case in reality. It must also be pointed out that whilst such people swiftly condemn painting a religion with a broad brush of criticism, they also see no problem adopting the same tactic as a defence of it, which isn’t exactly consistent or honest.

A moderate though won’t mention such errors, because apologetics satisfies their need to feel comfortable in their religion, requiring no adjustment from them, and no change in religious culture which some people within the community desperately want. One thing Reza Aslan is right about though, is that humans bring their own psychology, their peace and their war to religion, or any other concept for that matter, but that shouldn’t detract from the glaringly obvious problems within scripture. He is completely wrong when he says people don’t take their lead from their religion at times – I’m sure we all know people who claim their charitable acts are inspired by holy books as a positive example. I very much doubt, however, that any child brings their need to behead people to their religion, but it must become much easier to do some beheading when they see it’s OK to do so (Surah 8:12 al-Anfal), despite verses to the contrary forbidding murder, apart from under certain circumstances (Surah 5:32 al-Maidah).  It also helps when the source is apparently a perfect, divinely authored and immutable holy book that everyone else believes in too, and that the mind of a child is entirely suggestible.

Religion like any other social construct was developed by people, and reflects their nature. The books were written by deeply tribal groups at a time when they were trying to unite themselves under a common banner, and when claiming divine origin was a good idea to keep people in check. As a relic of such a tribal past, they contain many barbaric beliefs, especially regarding the out-group, that have no place in the 21st century and need to be tackled and even removed from scripture, lest people use them for no other reason than they are there. It seems to be no use just reinterpreting them, saying they’re context dependent, or disastrously, that nobody really believes these things literally anymore. People do, and if religious groups want to claim that peace is motivated by their religion, they also have to accept that war is as well, because no amount of duelling with scripture or creative thinking can prove which camp is right. Islamic State’s version of Islam isn’t less correct than the moderate’s interpretation, nor is the Westboro Baptist Church’s version of Christianity inferior. These groups’ versions are just far less desirable, which is why reformation is needed and not merely the promotion of a more moderate version.

See for Yourself

Today it’s easy to read holy books. No longer can people claim that X verse isn’t in scripture, or that is doesn’t manifest in behaviour. A simple google search and cross reference with the original text on your shelf (using the term “original” loosely), and a bit of research to see who claims their actions are justified by such a scribbling will sort that out. The real challenge is rather, are we willing to accept anymore, that religion should be used as an excuse for anything, positive or negative? Or should we perhaps come to the realisation that people are complex, that we should be responsible for our own actions, that holy books are an out-dated yardstick for behaviour, and that promoting and inclusive society is what matters, rather than the preservation and protection of archaic ideas for the sake of ‘freedom of religion.’

It’s also informative to listen to the honesty of true reformers. They understand from lived experience that repeating the mantra that religion is conceptually by default peaceful, or peaceful at best and benign at worst, shields religion, culture and people, from an obligation to accept positive psychological and sociological change, whilst striving to be even better. Rather, such shallow statements from the ignorant, the religious demagogue, or even the well-meaning liberal, allow people to hark back to a so-called golden age, when things were anything but golden for those who weren’t members of the in-group.


About glencarrigan

Glen Carrigan is a Neuropsychology Postgraduate Researcher and Senior Research Assistant in Clinical Practice at The University of Central Lancashire. Glen is a public speaker, humanist, science presenter, ex-soldier, and social and political activist with an interest in all things related to equality, science, education, and politics.

Posted on November 25, 2014, in Humanism, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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