I don’t believe in any religion. Note I didn’t say I didn’t believe in God. I don’t, but I think of them as separate issues. As someone who styles themselves a pragmatic empiricist, there’s just no way for me to know if there’s a supreme being or not. Maybe there is, but there’s no evidence that supports the premise. “Faith” is something I have a hard time with, especially when it comes to something as improbable as God, and I’ve never been willing to take someone’s word on the matter.
But I don’t have a problem with someone who wants to believe there is a God. That’s up to them. For me, the problems stem from groups of people believing all the same thing (more or less) about their version of God. Because that invariably leads to them looking askance at those in other groups who believe something different (even if only slightly). And that leads to the kind of bullshit we’re dealing with today.
On the Tuesday after the Paris terror attacks, a Virginia civil engineer named Samer Shalaby carried a few poster boards into Spotsylvania County’s small, low-ceilinged community forum room to present plans to replace Fredericksburg’s aging Islamic center. Shalaby’s presentation was meant to formalize his application for a zoning permit — the very dullest sort of dull civic meeting — but as a crowd filed in, filling every seat and standing shoulder to shoulder along the walls, it became clear that they were not there to discuss zoning.
“Nobody wants your evil cult in this town,” one of them shouted at Shalaby, pointing an outstretching finger. Many in the crowd clapped and cheered their affirmation.
“And I’ll tell you what,” he went on, “I will do everything in my power to make sure that this does not happen. Because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists. I don’t care what you say. I don’t care what you think.” He later added, to cheers, “Every Muslim is a terrorist, period. Shut your mouth.”
As the crowd grew more hostile, a city official stepped in, first to ask them to calm down and, when they wouldn’t, to abruptly cancel the meeting.
You don’t need to be a crackpot to believe, as the owner of the outstretched finger does, that Muslims are inherently evil, violent, and seeking “our” destruction. I have friends (like, actual people I know) who feel the same way. Who say Islam is a religion that teaches hate and intolerance and is fundamentally incompatible with a free society. This boggles my mind, truly.
From where I sit, apart from both Muslims and Christians, both religions looks pretty much the same. Their acolytes profess theirs to be a religion of peace yet in both cases it’s not hard to find justification for deadly acts in their holy texts. Those books, like all works of men, are contradictory in places and teach love and acceptance alongside vengeance and violence. An unhinged individual could easily find a passage to hide their actions behind if they needed to.
Over on the Facebook, I posted a link to an article describing how a Christian evangelist named Joshua Feuerstein (whose Facebook page has nearly two million likes) called on fellow Christians to “punish Planned Parenthood” and make those who work for the organization fear for their lives. This is after Robert Dear killed three and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs. I asked if Feuerstein should be considered a “radical Christian” and why moderate Christians hadn’t “cleaned house” the way Muslims all over the world are called to do each time someone commits an atrocity in the name of their religion.
A friend of mine who identifies as Christian and whom I respect very much said Feuerstein “gets a little fired up sometimes and ends up putting his foot in his mouth.” Apparently, that he shouldn’t be taken seriously because his emotions get the better of him and we should expect another statement recanting his call to violence. Great, but what if that never happens? Or, if it does, that some unhinged person allows his first words to radicalize them into terrible action? We are to let this go without response because…? He’s a fellow Christian? That’s all?
Even in our own media, we seem to have a blind spot regarding people like Dear. I’ve yet to see The New York Times refer to him as a terrorist. Critics like to call out the president for refusing to say we’re battling “radical Islam” but there’s no criticism from those same people when the nation’s paper of record won’t call a spade a spade and use the president’s preferred term, “religious extremists.” Why won’t The Times call Dear and all the others who firebomb and vandalize and shoot up clinics what they are? Is it perhaps because we live in an overwhelmingly Christian nation and therefore have an understanding of the gradations of tolerance that exist within that faith? That few Christians (in fact, the vast majority) are like Feuerstien or Dear or would take up arms against innocent law-abiding health care workers or incite others to do the same?
There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world and the overwhelming majority totally reject the actions of the religious extremists who claim to act in the name of their religion. They say Daesh is not following the tenets of Islam when they kill the innocent. Ironically, on the subject of Robert Dear who, by all accounts considered himself to be a devout Christian, my Christian friend says Dear was not one. That Christians don’t do such heinous things. That he would not defend or condemn anyone since Christianity “needs no defense.” In other words, he sounded like nearly all the Muslims on the face of the planet who disown those who would wrap their actions in faith.
Less than one percent of Americans are Muslim. Chances are, you know few if any unless you live in a large, non-Southern city. To vast numbers of Americans, Muslims are “those people” who do terrible things and hate us. They have no other frame of reference besides what they see on the TV or read on the web (and, if they’re religious conservatives, that information pool is small and shallow and invariably negative regarding Islam). It’s all too easy to demonize them as “the other.” In the exact same way radical Muslims demonize Christians and all those in the decadent, irreligious, and secular West. And it works for exactly the same reasons, only in many Muslim countries and communities poverty and hopelessness allows the hate to fester and concentrate until it lashes out explosively.
To me, Christians and Muslims are nearly identical. Untrusting of the other, scared, and in a constant crouch. All because of a mutual ignorance and unwillingness to see the other as a human first and a potential enemy second due to the other having learned about God from a different book written by different men.
And this is why I don’t believe in religion. And I never will.
Originally published on Medium.