Burnt Up Bloody Fools
Disclaimer: Although I predict that some of my views will be considered controversial, these are sensitive topics involving highly sensitive issues and emotions, and I will do my best to keep an open mind and be reasonable. Personally, I am for peace, cultural tolerance, and developing healthy worldviews. End of disclaimer.
The Story of an Idiot, a Fool, and a Clown
If you’ve been following the news, you’ll probably have read a snippet or blurb about the antics of Florida based pastor Terry Jones, head of the Christian congregation at Dove World Outreach Center, whose recent burning of the Muslim religious book the Qur’an triggered Muslim riots in Afghanistan that led to the deaths of 21 people. Mob riots incited by the burning of the Qur'an lead to attacks on a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif, killing seven U.N. employees, and on Saturday, related protests in Kandahar left nine dead and more than 90 injured.
In a recent essay on his blog The Oxonian called “Bloody Fools,” the religious historian R. Joseph Hoffmann condemned the act stating, “Terry Jones’s acts were not a stunt: they were intended to light fires and kill innocent people. Indeed they were done to prove that innocent people would be killed.”
Indeed, Terry Jones was warned by government officials that such a brazen, tactless, and culturally insensitive act would incite riots and potentially murders yet he went through with it anyway. Hoffmann wants Jones arrested and charged as an accomplice in mass murder for having instigated the heinous act and deliberately inflaming the situation. In the article Hoffmann makes a comparison between the atheist PZ Myers whose antics a few years earlier made headlines when he poked a hole in a
religious cracker and tossed it in a waste bin with some torn out pages of a Bible, Koran, and a torn up copy of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion all topped off with some used coffee grounds. Hoffmann writes:
Myers, simply an atheist showman, wrote a pretty nifty article about blasphemy on his site in 2008. In it he documented the insidious reverence in which Catholics held to the doctrine of the “real presence of Jesus” in the eucharist in the Middle Ages and the violence shown to disbelievers, especially Jews, who were always getting on the wrong side of Catholics and always being accused of desecrating the communion host, or “cracker” as Myers snarkily likes to call the matzah used at Mass…. Myers’ antics made him the dark darling of full frontal atheists, those who hold to the curious view that the angrier you make people who believe in sacred books and objects, the likelier you are to win over people who hold a weak or no opinion on the subject… Desecration, confrontation, Yo-mama style insult and blasphemy are tangible blows for reason, the commandos believe.
Hoffmann goes onto to call Myer’s antics cowardly and adds, “The point was half-clever, but the whole incident was tasteless, and (as I’ve said before) cowardly: to be effective, try it again, only this time in downtown Lahore after you send the memo.”
Coming to Myers defense is fellow biologist, academic, and atheist Jerry Coyne, who brings up a great point, asking, “Was it ‘cowardly’, as Hoffman states, for P. Z. to desecrate the Qur’an in Morris, Minnesota but not in Lahore? Not cowardly but prudent—who wants to die that way? The fact that it’s imprudent to insult Islam in Lahore is not the fault of Myers; it’s the fault of Islam, which is so easily insulted and inflamed.”
About Hoffmann’s rash call for the arrest of Terry Jones, Jerry Coyne states:
There are far more innocuous acts that also have a reasonable expectation of causing trouble, like Geert Wilders’s and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s criticism of Islam. They now need police protection because they’ve “insulted” Islam. The threats against them were absolutely predictable. If they are murdered by Muslim extremists, as was Theo van Gogh, are they responsible for their own deaths?... In all of this Hoffmann misses the real problem, which is not the inimical effects of protected speech, but the fact that Islam is such a violent faith that even the mildest criticism, like naming a teddy bear “Mohamed,” can inflame Muslims and lead to murder…. There is an uncanny irony here that many have noticed. The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we will kill you. Of course, the truth is often more nuanced, but this is about as nuanced as it ever gets: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we peaceful Muslims cannot be held responsible for what our less peaceful brothers and sisters do. When they burn your embassies or kidnap and slaughter your journalists, know that we will hold you primarily responsible and will spend the bulk of our energies criticizing you for “racism” and “Islamophobia.”
In an update to his article Hoffmann retorts:
Some respondents think that there is a moral equivalence, such that Terry Jones and the Afghan and Pakistani responders are cut from the same cloth. How that renders Jones innocent or raises the dead I am not sure. I find that kind of response both uninformed and worrying. Very worrying coming from nonbelievers, and maybe because it raises in my mind questions about whether a certain level of atheism isn’t also an impediment to moral reasoning–specifically that kind that finds all religions “naturally” guilty of atrocity and hence no one at fault and no one innocent of crimes.
However, I must agree with Coyne here, that both in the case of Myers and Jones, the sayings and expressions of both men are in fact protected by the First Amendment of American free speech law. Hoffmann is essentially asking us to wave the rights of Jones because he equates Jones’ words and actions with the desire to instigate murderous riots, but nothing Jones said or did violates any American laws. Coyne is right to identify Hoffmann’s call fatuous. Furthermore, a distinction needs to be made, Terry Jones is an idiot. An insensitive, blithering, imbecile who is closed-minded, xenophobic, tactless, and shows such bad judgment that it’s a wonder he can even function in normal society (which probably explains why he remains at the fringe).
More than this, Jones is a sinister twat who cares more about professing his sanctimonious certitude than he cares about other people’s lives, and for this he will be remembered as an unsympathetic monster. By contrast, Myers is quite entertaining—he’s the clown in this story—and he is quite guiltless of any perceived offense, as blasphemy is a victimless crime (more on this later). This leaves Hoffmann, who plays our fool, because like all fools, he just can’t seem to grasp the irony of the situation—it’s not Jones to blame, it’s his religious upbringing. Perhaps Hoffmann arrogantly assumes people who, like him, have seen the light will sympathize with those poor schmucks who are still deluded and suffering a God Delusion. Perhaps his own moral convictions cause him to be blinded to what’s really going on here, and his call to lop off the head of the beast (aka Terry Jones) causes us to roll our eyes whilst atheists stand up for the rights of the radical Christian nut-job to voice his blinkered and painfully ignorant opinion. It’s not religious ridicule which is to blame, it’s not even defamation of religion, but rather, it’s the inviolable status which the religious have bestowed upon anything they deem is sacred which is at the core of the problem.
Criticism Where Criticism is Due
During the Herbert Reade Memorial Lecture in 1990, Salman Rushdie, who is no stranger to religious persecution, spoke on the matter of religion‘s inviolable status and simultaneously its drive to oppress dissenting ideas, by expressing, “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas—uncertainty, progress, change—into crimes.”
In fact, we might view the sacred as a perversion of religious certainty. Anything which seeks to inform the religious that they are wrong is perceived as a threat, for such suggestions may spark a crippling doubt which takes people away from God (and the consequences of this—according to most religious ways of thinking—are too horrible to bear). Thus to safeguard faith, such criticism is made criminal, blasphemy laws are written up, heretics and apostates get fatwas (i.e., bounties) put on their heads for anyone willing to silence the infidel for a price. The price of a life arbitrarily being doled out by Imams and religious clerics is bad enough, the fact that they have frequently gotten away with it in the 20th and 21st century is scandalous. The message is always the same: the sacred must go unchallenged at all costs—in order for religion to survive unscathed—and faith must be held up as the utmost highest of virtues—which is why it is taboo to criticize it. Anything less, and the religion would be trivialized to the point where it becomes quite meaningless—this is the dread driving the fervor of religious fanatics—a huge insecurity and the inability to cope with doubt.
The religious have turned faith into a virtue which must be sheltered from criticism at all costs, but it is this very act which acts as kindle to a flame. For those who are all stoked up on their own self righteous indignation, it doesn’t matter how ill conceived, sick, or twisted one’s faith gets—just as long as nobody every mentions anything about its failings and weaknesses. To admit to an imperfect faith would be heresy. However, when some bold skeptic, perhaps an atheist biology professor, does challenge the artificially buttressed inviolable status of religious faith, it seems the most insecure, often times the most stupid, of religious adherents become so riled up that, like a hornets’ nest getting stirred up, they frantically lash out at anyone (and everyone) who gives them even the slightest sideways glance. Hoffmann’s advice is not to ridicule them, don’t stir things up, but this is in itself a large part of the problem.
Christopher Hitchens has pinpointed the problem, quite nicely, when he observes:
[All religions] make the same mistake. They all take the only real faculty we have that distinguishes us from other primates, and from other animals—the faculty of reason, and the willingness to take any risk that reason demands of us—and they replace that with the idea that faith is a virtue. If I could change just one thing, it would be to dissociate the idea of faith from virtue...[i]
Hitchens is right. If faith wasn’t an uninfringeable subject matter, if the sacrosanct opinion of the most zealous wasn’t so insecure, if violence wasn’t so romanticized by religion, then one could safely criticize religion for its faults and failings—hoping to invoke change—instead of fearing for one’s life that they have (somehow) inadvertently wounded the pride of religious believers so deeply that the only retribution is retaliation and the forfeit of your life.
Rational, level headed, people call this sort of overreaction insane—precisely because rational, level headed, people usually do not demand your death when you bring up a legitimate criticism. Granted, sometimes it helps to be more tactful in how we bring awareness to other people’s faults. For example, you would not say to your friend, who suffers from bad breath, “Brush your teeth, stank breath!” You would likely approach them more sensitively, by offering them a mint first, or perhaps, by buying them a new fancy electric tooth brush for their birthday (and asking them regularly if they want a free refill on those used brush heads). Eventually the point would sink in. On the other hand, if you found out your boyfriend or girlfriend was a double timing, no good, floozy you might feel compelled to let him or her know they would be doing the whole world a favor by informing them to, “Crawl up their own ass and die.” Either way, various situations call for different levels of language usages to get the message across.
Hoffmann affirms, “Ultimately, the way forward is going to be a matter of tone and technique, not the outcome of the work of a few commando God-bashers writing from the safe haven of first world democracies telling the majority how foolish they are.” On this point I agree with him. But where I differ is on the notion that, somehow, censuring loud mouthed God-bashers, or worse still, stripping them of their freedom of speech, is somehow necessitated by the hypersensitivity of somebody else’s religious insecurity. On this point, Hoffmann is entirely mistaken. We can’t dictate how others ought to think or behave, but we can at least criticize their actions when they misbehave, and perhaps, if our message is clear enough, the point might sink in.
Even Morons and Blowhards are Entitled the Right to Freedom of Speech
It goes without saying that I too find Terry Jones despicable, in almost every way, and no matter how much I detest him or his book burning antics though, I can’t bring myself to deprive him of a basic human right—the freedom of speech. At the end of the day, no matter how vitriolic, venom stained, or hateful Terry Jones words are—he still has a basic privilege to say them. It doesn’t mean saying them is right, but at the same time, we need to realize, there is no law against burning books. Even morons and blowhards are entitled the right to the freedom of speech in the U.S., as well as most civilized Democracies (except for Ireland where they have an idiotic blasphemy law—and the one thing I hate more than blowhards which say idiotic things are the discriminatory politicians which think they can dictate what others think and say).
Even so, no matter how hurtful Jones’ actions or words were to the feelings (and pride) of others—it’s not a hate crime against Muslims, it’s not even a hate crime per se. There’s nothing to hold him criminally accountable for. Meanwhile, those who think Jones committed a grave offense forget that it’s only a conversation delusional fanatics hash out amongst themselves. It’s a pissing contest between giants with tiny, virtually non-existent, wieners. It’s why there are Holy Wars in the first place. Everyone wants to be vindicated, and their so full of piss and vinegar, that to challenge them on any point is to challenge their resolve. I’m right. No, I’m right. Obviously we both can’t be right, so I will kill you now. There can be only one. But I shouldn’t need to point out the obvious fact that where religion seeks to snuff out all dissenting views or differing opinions, everyone is a victim of tyranny. It’s why many of us have grown to detest religion. So often it seeks to oppress not just our criticisms but our individual opinions as well. That’s what the Muslim protesters are seeking to do, stifle the opposing opinions, and in so doing buttress their faith and shelter it from reproof—but only if you let their tyranny reign over you first. And that’s not a compromise any of us should halve to make just to protect a religious extremist’s feelings from being hurt by the very notion that there are others outside of his faith who do, and perhaps with very good reasons, disagree.
At any rate, we may not agree with what Terry Jones says or does, in fact we may find his ways downright deplorable (and I do), but it doesn’t make him responsible for the murders of some other religious nut in some far off country who, like Jones, shows no sense of moral judgment. To put it frankly, if a book means more to you than the life of another human being, your priorities are all messed up, and you need to seek help. Terry Jones knowingly, and willfully, chose to spread hate instead of love, and like a bigot he took a position of intolerance over tolerance, and just like the flames he set to the Qur’an, his hate ignited the hate of others, and like a wildfire it spread. Lives were lost. But Jones did not take those lives—other idiots, fueled by religious delusions, filled with just as much hate in their heats as Jones, took those lives. And for what?
Sam Harris chimes in with an essay titled “Losing our spines to save our necks,” stating:
Wilders, like Westergaard and the other Danish cartoonists, has been widely vilified for “seeking to inflame” the Muslim community. Even if this had been his intention, this criticism represents an almost supernatural coincidence of moral blindness and political imprudence. The point is not (and will never be) that some free person spoke, or wrote, or illustrated in such a manner as to inflame the Muslim community. The point is that only the Muslim community is combustible in this way. The controversy over Fitna, like all such controversies, renders one fact about our world especially salient: Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name. Our accommodation of this psychopathic skewing of priorities has, more and more, taken the form of craven and blinkered acquiescence.
Sadly, it appears those lives were taken because a fanatical group of Muslims were just as morally depraved as Terry Jones. Meanwhile, Jones is lapping it us, as he gets to say, “I told you so.” His point? The Muslims will murder at the drop of a hat—and there’s the religion of peace for you. Jones entire goal was to prove the “religion of peace” nothing but a guise for the devil’s religion, a religion of hate. It seems that Jones ploy worked. He succeeded in proving to his congregation that religious extremists everywhere, whether Christian or Muslim, excel at practicing a religion of hate. Or rather, hate coupled with ignorance becomes their religion—and they prove it every time they burn books, insight riots, partake in rioting, or take innocent lives.
Instead of trying to build a better, safer, world for all to live religious extremists are all hell bent on tearing it down—but burnt over policies never work, and getting rid of religion, or other people’s religion for that matter, won’t fix the problem. Such destructive people would exist regardless of whether or not religion did, but it cannot be denied that religion does frequently contribute to their ignorance and zeal, making for a deadly mixture, and often spurs on their behavior by means of a tenacious dogma which refuses to show any mercy. Religious apologists would do best to dispense with the excuses and start addressing the very real problem of violent acts which are specifically done in the name of faith—whether it is the rape of children as so prevalent in the Catholic Church, or whether it is female genital mutilation as seen in various Islamic countries, or honor killings, or witch hunts in the Dark Continent—these are religious acts compelled by superstitious modes of religious thinking. Addressing these evils, and figuring out how such perverted thinking arises in the first place, and how exactly this relates to the underlying religious ideology, would be a large step toward addressing the larger problem of how such deep felt religious convictions can so easily lead to acts of human atrocity.
Some Common Sense
Yet, I can’t help but feel, in all this negativity that we begin to paint with too broad of brush strokes. Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism reminds us that all harmful religious dogmas are despicable. But this doesn’t give us any right to be culturally insensitive or intolerant. I agree with Luke when he states:
It’s not very useful to paint with such a broad brush. For example, there are large populations of Christians who are more destructive than certain large populations of Muslims. This point is illustrated—with devastating emotional force—in a 2006 story on This American Life about a Muslim family’s life in America the day before, and the day after, September 11th.
True enough. The story is heartbreaking, which Luke summarizes on his blog, and it shows how cruel a Christian community was to a Muslim family—so cruel in fact that they literally ruined the family due to their own fear, hatred, and ignorance. Luke, showing more empathy than most, adds, “My one-note coverage of Islam on this blog, focusing on extremism, has probably “contributed to an atmosphere” in which Muslims are harassed, tormented, and hated. That wasn’t my intent, but I should have thought more carefully about the consequences of my choices.”
This is wisdoms worth sharing—if more people cared enough to think about the consequences of their words and actions before they said or did them, then maybe, just maybe, we’d all benefit from this prudence. Instead, we are stuck with the likes of Terry Jones and those religious radicals who love nothing more to do than throw flaming snowballs of piss at each other because of some sanctimonious high-horse they are on. The only problem is, all the innocent people who get caught up in their petty blood feuds and holy crusades of self indignation.
Blasphemy: A Victimless Crime
Why, one might wonder, is my scorn reserved for hate filled abusers like Terry Jones but not for the clowning around of wise-guy atheists like PZ Myers? First off, if you’ve ever had the honor of meeting PZ Myers or hearing one of his anti-religious lectures, you’ll find that he is quite mild-mannered, well spoken, and jovial. Sure, he has a juvenile delinquent who has yet to get through puberty trapped inside a fifty-four year old man’s body, but who doesn’t? What cannot be ignored, however, is that PZ Myers frequently makes a good point.
Hoffmann is straining mightily to turn all the focus on a jerk and a hate-monger, while neglecting the actual results of religion's actions: that some people are so dedicated to their delusional superstitions that they will threaten or even commit violence at slight provocation. We live in a world where some Catholics will froth at the mouth and send death-threats and call for people to be fired over insults to a scrap of magic, holy bread; we live in a world where some Muslims will kill random people if someone insults their magic, holy book. That ought to be recognized as the real problem and a call for more criticism, not less, of religion…
Myers’ call for more criticism of religion echoes Thomas Jefferson’s sentiment that “Nothing but free argument, raillery and even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion.”[ii] Nowadays, many seem to have forgotten the necessary reasons for this sort of freedom of speech—because past theocracies not only dictated what could be said, but would put to death anyone who said differently, or who was guilty of the perceived crime of blasphemy. This is the dangerous path religious fundamentalism leads down for those too caught up in the literalism of their faith that they don’t heed the warnings of Young Goodman Brown, or PZ Myers for that matter. The only way to combat such inviolable status of religion is to deflate it, and this, of course, requires an occasional prick. After all, by taking religion down a few notches, people can speak more openly (even candidly) about faith—and this often leads to revivals of faith and stronger felt convictions. Confessions of faith which cannot be spoken, not even uttered on a whisper, due to a fear that your co-religionists will do what John Calvin did when he betrayed fellow Christian Michael Servetus, whom Calvin deemed a heretic and handed over to the Inquisition to be burned at the stake for nothing more than a difference of theological opinion, sponsors a very real fear of being silenced, or worse.
PZ Myers, like an expert rodeo clown,[iii] takes this fear sparked by mad religionists and dances around it, taunting it, prodding it, getting it riled up. Then, when it bursts into a bucking bull full of senseless rage, Myers expertly evades the sharp horns of the dangerous beast. Then, he asks us to join him in the dance. The goal is to tame the wild beast—and maybe the beast will be less prone to violence, less quick to temper, and more apt to shrug off the occasional prick. The bull, finally tamed, will be forced to retire from the rodeo. Myers point, I feel, is that if you sensationalize every trivial offense, getting angrier and angrier, then like a mad bull enraged to the point of uncontrolled violence, you’re going to inadvertently call in the rodeo clowns—and it is their job to defuse the situation. If religious people don’t want clowns like PZ Myers dancing circles around them, taunting them, prodding them, honking them on the nose, and getting them all worked up—then they have to learn how stop making mountains of mole hills and learn to cope with criticism—otherwise their just inviting more of it.
Religious faith needs to be more open to criticism, not only for the good of society, but for its own good. This is something I feel most religious adherents have a hard time accepting because they are under the notion that everything within their faith is sacred and must not be met with irreverent treatment. Yet this begs the question, does what PZ Myers or Terry Jones have done in their irreligious stunts in any way equate to a religious offense? In other words, to frame the question another way, can blasphemy (or more generally speaking irreligion) even be considered a genuine offense at all? Can we bully God to the point of making him cry? The question itself rings absurd.
The atheist philosopher GW Foote brings to our attention the fact that:
Atheists are often charged with blasphemy, but it is a crime they cannot commit… When the Atheist examines, denounces, or satirises the gods, he is not dealing with persons but with ideas. He is incapable of insulting God, for he does not admit the existence of any such being…. We attack not a person but a belief, not a binge but an idea, not a fact but a fancy.[iv]
Blasphemy, it seems, is a victimless crime. In fact, the Oxford Dictionary of English states that: blasphemy is the action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God (or sacred things). Originally, if we trace the etymology of the term, the word blasphemy stems from the ecclesiastical Latin from the Greek blasphémia or to ‘slander’. Yet it is well understood that one cannot slander something which doesn’t exist to feel the pangs of a hurt reputation. Most nonbelievers, as Foote noted, do not admit to the existence of any such being. Even if we assume God exists, then God’s complete absence of presence, conveniently enough, allows for him to avoid direct defamation (and so he cannot be properly slandered). Criticizing God would amount to little more than people talking behind God’s back. If he showed up, then maybe his detractors would think twice. But, then again, he might merely invite the ire of his most ardent followers if he should prove to be as big as a scumbag as his detractors say he is—the let down would cause a massive loss of faith amongst the majority of beliers. Which begs the question, is God intentionally avoiding a face to face confrontation with PZ Myers because he know PZ is right? Perhaps God just doesn’t care enough of one man’s lofty opinion. Certainly, such an indifferent being wouldn’t care much about crimes of blasphemy. Why should his followers?
If we take the skeptical view, however, God’s complete absence of presence may be evidence of non-existence. If this turns out to be the case, then blasphemy is even a more erroneous concept than initially thought, as there would be absolutely nothing to ridicule or slander, thus nothing to take offense against. Therefore blasphemy cannot possibly be a punishable offense—since there is absolutely nothing to offend. Which is exactly why I feel modern blasphemy laws are senseless, arbitrary, and therefore constitute cruel and unusual punishment, which breach international human rights laws and goes directly against the Geneva convention—sorry to say (I’m looking at you Ireland).
Religious believers need to start getting used to criticism. Plain and simple. The first step, if I may be so bold as to offer advice tempered by experience, would be to stop overreacting and perhaps pause to ask yourself, why is it that I’m being criticized? Was any constructive criticism offered, what can I learn by this, and how can I change for the better? Getting in a tizzy anytime somebody voices a differing opinion is not the way to justify one’s beliefs. The only way you will ever be proved right is by testing your beliefs and holding them up to scrutiny. Do they pass muster? In fact, the reluctance of the religious community to do just this (hold their own beliefs up to scrutiny) causes impatient, sometimes smart-alecky, atheists and religious critics to do it for them.
Religious detractors like PZ Myers are literally forcing the mirror up to the religious zealot’s face and asking them to look as what they see staring back at them. I should think, in the case of Terry Jones and those violent Muslim rioters, that what they see in the mirror should shame and humiliate them. The corrupt and depraved, unfeeling, creature staring back at them with nothing but contempt and scorn for everybody and everything should not be a mark of Saintly devotion, but should be seen for what it is, a complete and utter failure of humanity. And this less than human form should, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s golem, be condemned to crawl back into whatever slimy, filth ridden, hole it came from and keep there.
Meanwhile, the very refusal of the religious to keep their deplorable religious ideas, tenuous teaching, paltry practices, and tortured thoughts to themselves simply invites criticism—if religion can go so wrong, so frequently, what’s wrong in reminding them of it? Why not lambast it into the next century? If it survives the scrutiny it will be better off for it, if not, it will crumble away like a house built on a foundation of sand. One might wonder, don’t the religious want the truth? Aren’t they the ones always confessing to have the truth? It’s the least we could do to ask them to back up their claims and put them to the test. More importantly, it would be doing them a favor. After all, if their beliefs are all illusions, if they are under a shared mass delusion, wouldn’t they want to be free of it? Wouldn’t they want to enjoy the liberated freedom of thought that the secular free thinker enjoys—if in fact their religious beliefs prove false? I for one value the truth over lies, and if someone showed me that I had only been lying to myself, and with reason and compassion helped me to think differently—then I’d like to think that perhaps I would be capable of changing my mind, even if it meant that I may have to eat crow. I’m certainly not conceited enough to think that I never err—or that every belief I have is infallible—or that I am privy to some ultimate truth that nobody else is because I believe in tenuous things. No, I can no longer abide the arrogance and self conceit of such narrow-minded reasoning.
At the same time, we must not be too quick to revile all religion. Not all religious practices are harmful, not all religious beliefs are absurd (although many are), and certainly not all religious people are mad zealots with violent intentions. I have many Muslim friends, both in America and abroad, and they express the same horror and shock I do at these events. At the same time, many religious traditions are beautiful. Buddhist funerals are elaborate ceremonies which both honor the memory of the deceased and provide closure for the mourning—even minus the traditional belief in god. Even as a nonbeliever I still find Christmas day a day worth having—if not for the time it affords us to be with loved ones and family then for the joys of children’s laughter as gifts are exchanged and Christmas cakes are divided. Like Tim Minchin, however, it won’t be about Jesus so much as enjoying each other’s company and drinking white wine in the sun. I love being invited over to Jewish friend’s homes and breaking bread, slathered in honey butter, and sharing a glass of wine over a good conversation as they prepare for the Sabbath. I like the Japanese festivals revolving around Buddhist tradition, such as the Hina matsuri (or Princess Festival), in which I can celebrate the joys of having a beautiful daughter, but also, celebrate darling girls everywhere. I enjoy throwing beans at imaginary oni (devils) during Setsubun, the bean scattering ceremony, which occurs during the last day of winter on the Japanese calendar. Although I speak only for myself, I also like reading Bible stories, not as a religious text, mind you, but as a work of literature containing ancient poetry, wisdom, and human history.
In all of this, the lesson to be had is, religion is not all bad. But some of it is. Similarly, some religions are worse than others, in fact some are downright disreputable, and this is why criticism is necessary. It will always be necessary. This is why it is so important for religious believers to become accustomed to this fact—not everyone is going to necessarily value your religion to the same degree you do—nor should they have to. That’s the open minded awareness and tolerance I hope to prompt by engaging with these issues. It’s not just a polemic against religion, because I think you will find religion can often times be more subtle than the caricature which gets painted of it. But at the same time, the religious need to realize that there is probably, more often than not, good justifications for the caricatures of religion.
Conclusion: In a Perfect World
In a perfect world those Muslims would never have been offended because in a perfect world Terry Jones would be a quite amiable fellow. In a less perfect world, those Muslim rioters would be spending the rest of their lives behind bars and Terry Jones would be executing a court order demanding he take bi-weekly sensitivity training classes, but the world we live in is less perfect still. Terry Jones will likely continue to insight Muslim violence, and fanatical Muslims will happily oblige him, and all will get off the hook—and go home proud of each small victory they gained by getting the other to jump through their hoops like they do—all acting like a bunch of trained monkeys. In summary, if there is one point which needs to be emphasized, we need to stop shifting the blame by pointing toward everyone else, and begin to take responsibility for our own words and actions. Religion may help or hinder this endeavor, but ultimately, we have no one to blame for our failings but ourselves.
[i] From his speech with David Berlinski, available online:
[ii] Thomas Jefferson, ―Notes on Religion, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, ed. by Paul Leicester Ford. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904), Vol. 2, p. 256.
[iii] Note: Rodeo clowns are noble and valiant. Their job is vitally important, because it is their antics which distract the bull long enough to allow the cowboy time to escape, with his life. I am not intending to ridicule PZ Myers by comparing him to a clown.
[iv] GW Foote, “Who are the Blasphemers?” in Flowers of Freethought