Year in Review. 2013 Reminds Us Why Secularism Matters.

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In April 2013, nightmarish scenes were recorded as two pressure cooker bombs, which killed 3 people and injured around 260 others, disrupted the Boston Marathon. The culprits were said to be motivated by ‘extremist’ Islamist beliefs. In May, British Army drummer Lee Rigby was run down by two men in Woolwich, UK, before being stabbed and hacked to death. Chilling scenes of the aftermath were captured on a mobile phone by a passer-by. The assailants were motivated by ‘extremist’ Islamist beliefs.


These are still relatively isolated cases in the West, but there is no doubt that terrorism is spreading globally. Russia, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Philippines, Indonesia, Israel, Nigeria, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Afghanistan and China all saw multiple religiously motivated suicide bombings, attacks or other mass murders in 2013. The majority of these nations saw dozens of actions. The most common assailants tended to be Islamist groups, and unsurprisingly the media-led debate largely focused on ‘extremist’ Islam: ‘how can we stop young Muslims being indoctrinated into extremist belief?’

 

Yet a more historically accurate opinion would show that the problem isn’t with Islam alone, and it isn’t just ‘extremists’ either. All religions – built as they are on the suppression of critical thinking and the valuing of belief without evidence – inherently teach followers not to be swayed by rational debate, and to hold certain beliefs regardless of what other opinion or facts are shown to them. For many Western religious people, these ‘steadfast and untestable’ beliefs go no further than a belief in a creator, however it is no shock that other religious people (especially outside the West) stick staunchly by more than just one basic belief from the holy books. Worryingly these other beliefs often consist not just of an afterlife or some other spiritual happening, but of the murder of non-believers, or prejudicial violence toward other groups. A further question thus follows: ‘how do we get religious people to keep their harmless religious beliefs but drop the harmful ones?’

 

The problem with this question is that it presupposes that you could teach every person to devalue rationality in some religious beliefs (thus allowing for belief in the untestable or unrealistic), but value it in others (thus rejecting beliefs in prejudicial violence). This is certainly possible as a theory, in which we fundamentally indoctrinate all religious people into strict sets of beliefs, but impossible in a reality where we don’t have the ability to force entire sets of sincere personal beliefs into other minds. It’s also highly immoral: indoctrination is the problem in the first place, so simply forcing a different indoctrination is only shifting the unshakeable belief to a different type.

 

A better solution, I would argue, is increasing secularisation globally. Secularism and rational thinking has thankfully moderated our ‘national religion’, Christianity, in the West. We still experience the odd Christian terrorist act, and groups like the Westboro Baptist Church are Christian extremists in regions like the United States that have not accepted secularism completely. But luckily Christian terrorism largely disappeared before the invention of significantly damaging technology, thanks to secularism. That’s also the answer to the question, if all religions are as violent as Islam, why does Islam underlie more violent terrorism? Islam is more violent because Islamic stronghold nations have fought off secularism and thus the need to moderate to survive.

 

If the long list of terrorist-laden countries was not evidence enough, there is yet more evidence from 2013 which supports the call for secularisation. I refer to the interesting case of the Taliban’s letter to Malala Yousafzai. In the West we believe the Taliban to be the most dangerous religious extremists, and we cover their actions in the media accordingly. Malala, the girl whom they shot in 2012 aged 15, miraculously recovered in a British hospital after surgery in Pakistan, and now attends school in the UK. Last year she went on to make an inspirational speech at the UN in support of free education for all children, unintentionally increasing her reputation in the process.

 

In what appeared to be a bizarre attempt at PR, senior member of the Taliban, Adnan Rasheed, wrote a letter to her which showed signs of regret at her shooting. Having portrayed the Taliban as evil foreigners, uninterested in discussion or reason, the media was forced to show a side of the Taliban which compared them with other religious sects, like home-grown religions in the West. Observing them trying to foster support for their faith through the media was to see that at their core they are really no different to any other religious group. Increasing secularisation in the West has meant that Christianity and Western Islamic groups almost always have to act through the media – through pen and not sword – else face backlash and dwindling participation. Islamic ‘extremists’ have not had the same pressure from secularisation to moderate, and thus continue to learn violence as a method of pushing similar interests.

 

There is little conclusion to draw from looking at 2013’s extremism than to call for further secularisation. I say this not as an atheist who believes secularisation to be an important step in progressing society, though I do believe this is true. I say it as a concerned human being who wishes to see an end to religious terrorism. We need secularisation to fight religious extremism into moderation.

Robert Johnson is a practical ethicist and philosopher of science. He specialises in the intersection of rationality and ethics, and is the author of 'Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong'. http://www.robertjohnson.org.uk/

Written By: Robert Johnson
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22 COMMENTS

  1. Increasing secularisation is a nice wish for 2014 (and beyond, let’s be realistic). But other than that Robert Johnson isn’t telling us anything we don’t know already. At least, I hope it isn’t news to anyone other than the ‘extremists’ (still not quite sure what that word means in the context of religion)?

    What really needs to happen is that we need to ask each other the hard question:

    What did you do for Peace today?

    I’ll put my hand up, I need to do more. I need to stop making excuses and get involved.

    How about you?

    Peace.

  2. I read Malala’s book.
    She still professed Islam as a religion of peace even at the end of it.
    At first I thought she was being very forward thinking and had considered one day being the Pakistani PM so she had to continue professing Islam as the true religion, but by the end, I really got the impression that she hadn’t understood that it was not fanatical Islam, but just the idea that a deity makes the rules that took her school away and set people up to shoot school girls.
    A very interesting read anyway as she gives an insight into life in Swat like no reporter could ever do.

    • In reply to #3 by Rosbif:

      I read Malala’s book.
      She still professed Islam as a religion of peace even at the end of it.
      At first I thought she was being very forward thinking and had considered one day being the Pakistani PM so she had to continue professing Islam as the true religion, but by the end, I really got the impres…

      Or it could just be that maybe you are wrong and that religion isn’t the only source of evil in the world. And that it’s possible to be a good theist or even a good Muslim? I’m sure that never occurred to you to even consider though because you believe in reason and critical thinking which means you already know the truth and don’t need to seriously consider alternatives.

      • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #3 by Rosbif:

        I read Malala’s book.
        She still professed Islam as a religion of peace even at the end of it.
        At first I thought she was being very forward thinking and had considered one day being the Pakistani PM so she had to continue professing Islam as the true religion, but by the e…

        Wow, RD this is a bit harsh! One religion is currently leading the charge to anarchy, or had you not noticed?

      • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

        Or it could just be that maybe you are wrong and that religion isn’t the only source of evil in the world. And that it’s possible to be a good theist or even a good Muslim? I’m sure that never occurred to you to even consider though because you believe in reason and critical thinking which means you already know the truth and don’t need to seriously consider alternatives.

        Of course there are many sources of evil in the world, but the greatest one is organised religion, amongst which – by a wide margin – Islam is the very worst.

        In Islam’s case the usual measurements and descriptions are inadequate and frequently inverted, moderate Islam is, by Western standards, extreme, assertive and vocally confrontational, and “extreme” Islam – represented by people like Malalla – is moderate, submissive, and frequently cowed into silence

        • In reply to #8 by N_Ellis:

          In Islam’s case the usual measurements and descriptions are inadequate and frequently inverted, moderate Islam is, by Western standards, extreme, assertive and vocally confrontational, and “extreme” Islam – represented by people like Malalla – is moderate, submissive, and frequently cowed into silence

          So what do you think of Malala’s stance on drones?

          “It is true that when there’s a drone attack the terrorists are killed, it’s true,” she said. “But 500 and 5,000 more people rise against it and more terrorism occurs, and more — more bomb blasts occurs. … I think the best way to fight against terrorism is to do it through [a] peaceful way, not through war. Because I believe that a war can never be ended by a war.”

          • Yes – I am not sure anyone could ever describe Malalla as “moderate, submissive and frequently cowed into silence” People also seem to forget that she is still just a kid – probably because she is such an impressive public speaker. She is clearly very intelligent and despite a rudimentary education (although it was the best her parents could provide for her at the time) has quickly caught up to her more privileged classmates in England and done so in a second language – English. I would expect the someone this young and this smart to go through several intellectual transformations over the course of her lifetime. Especially, given how much she seems to love learning and how widely read she has become in the short time she has been in the UK. She herself as talked about how limited the reading material available to her was in Parkistan. In reply to #9 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #8 by N_Ellis:

            In Islam’s case the usual measurements and descriptions are inadequate and frequently inverted, moderate Islam is, by Western standards, extreme, assertive and vocally confrontational, and “extreme” Islam – represented by people like Malalla – is moderate, submissive, and…

          • In reply to #13 by debjanrobin:

            Yes – I am not sure anyone could ever describe Malalla as “moderate, submissive and frequently cowed into silence” People also seem to forget that she is still just a kid – probably because she is such an impressive public speaker. She is clearly very intelligent and despite a rudimentary education…

            Well you didn’t actually answer my question. But reading between the lines I interpret your answer to be something like the following:

            “Malela is still naive and doesn’t understand the complex reasons that the US has to kill people with no trial no evidence and only the word of the Pentagon that the people they kill are terrorists” (in spite of the fact that overwhelming evidence from independent human rights groups shows that many of the people killed are innocent civilians)

            If I misunderstood you then please ignore what I’m about to say because it doesn’t apply. But if that IS what you mean it is more or less what I expected. And that is you are an incredible hypocrite. You praise the wonderful independent young women when she criticizes the people you don’t like. But when she criticizes the policies you DO like you treat her more or less the same as the Islamic misogynists would treat her, you do the equivalent of patting her on the head and saying “yes little girl I understand your idealism but you don’t understand the real world yet”

            As I’ve said before it takes moral courage to criticize your OWN group. So I agree when Malala criticizes Islam she shows great moral courage. The equivalent (although far less risky) behavior for an American is to criticize the illegal and immoral activity of our own government such as the drone strikes.

  3. Thou I concur with this article I think that religion alone is not the problem. What are some of causes for religious extremism? I would argue that aside from being a response to the rise, and expansion, of Western Secularism it is also a response to U.S. Imperialism in the Middle East. Let us look back at history, The Iranian Revolution. It started out as a secular anti imperialist movement that sought to remove the Pahlavi Shah who was put in charge of the country by the CIA after the democratically elected government in Iran on the 1950′s had decided to nationalize its oil. As the Revolution began to take place the religious right were able to rise to power through cohesion, manipulation, assassinations and other brutal techniques. Their success, however, was due to the fact that the regime fed on the resentment the Iranian people had towards the U.S. Government. Indeed if you go to Iran U.S. Imperialism is used as a means to justify the existence of the regime. I would argue that terrorism has been fueled not only by religious dogma but also but the injustices of Western Imperialism particularly U.S. Imperialism.

  4. In reply to number 5 by cchavez94.
    There have been thousands of suicide attacks since 9/11 and everyone was done in the name of religion. Highly educated young people do not kill themselves unless they believe that Allah will bless them in Paradise. The men who committed the New Yok attacks were University educated and wealthy. Their minds were intoxicated with thoughts of receiving 72 virgins in the after-life. There are over 100 verses in the Koran that teach Muslims to hate and kill infidels. There is no equivalent to the Sermon on the Mount in the Koran.

  5. In reply to number 12 by MB16.
    Although the views of Westboro Baptist church are odious, they do not kill innocent people in the name of Christ. Islamic terrorists kill thousands in the name of Allah. Most evangelical Christians are opposed to Westboro, but even Billy Graham has a disgraceful record of racism and anti-semitism.

    • In reply to #14 by Bob Springsteen:

      Although the views of Westboro Baptist church are odious, they do not kill innocent people in the name of Christ. Islamic terrorists kill thousands in the name of Allah.

      Christianity is the Religion of Hypocrisy. The Sermon on the Mount preaches turning the other cheek but Christians are the most violent and murderous ‘group’ on earth. The difference between Christians and Jihadists is a matter of technology. Drones are the most illustrative of that. They wipe out families from a vast distance and this sanitizes the killing. A suicide bombing is a messy low tech affair.

  6. In reply to number 12 by MB16.
    Although the views of Westboro Baptist church are odious, they do not kill innocent people in the name of Christ. Islamic terrorists kill thousands in the name of Allah. Most evangelical Christians are opposed to Westboro, but even Billy Graham has a disgraceful record of racism and anti-semitism.

    • In reply to #15 by Bob Springsteen:

      In reply to number 12 by MB16.
      Although the views of Westboro Baptist church are odious, they do not kill innocent people in the name of Christ. Islamic terrorists kill thousands in the name of Allah. Most evangelical Christians are opposed to Westboro, but even Billy Graham has a disgraceful record…

      Aye, that’s true. What I was saying was that religion can make people do evil things, no matter what religion it is.

  7. In reply to number 12 by MB16.
    Although the views of Westboro Baptist church are odious, they do not kill innocent people in the name of Christ. Islamic terrorists kill thousands in the name of Allah. Most evangelical Christians are opposed to Westboro, but even Billy Graham has a disgraceful record of racism and anti-semitism.

  8. In reply to number 17 by aldous.
    Try telling the families of the 3,000 innocent men, women, and children who were incinerated on 9/11 by Islamic terrorists that Drones are not justified. We are at war with people who live by every word in the Koran. Wars are not won by choirboys. Pacifism is highly immoral. Although I’m an atheist I am glad that some Christians have joined a just war. Remember: the policy of jihadists is to kill the women and chilldren first. If there were no terrorist attacks thee would be no Drones.

    • In reply to #18 by Bob Springsteen:

      In reply to number 17 by aldous.
      Try telling the families of the 3,000 innocent men, women, and children who were incinerated on 9/11 by Islamic terrorists that Drones are not justified.

      Why do you think the 9/11 families are any more deserving than the families of people killed by drones? E.g. the families of a recent wedding party in Yemen that was decimated by a drone attack?

      The drone attacks are clearly illegal by International Law. If any other nation was acting that way the US would be leading a UN charge to overthrow their regime. Only the US can get away with such blatant criminality.

      And the fact that we are at war with “bad guys” is irrelevant. Bad guys have always existed. The reason society defines rules is that we put limits on the behavior of individuals and nations. If I kill someone I can’t offer the defense “but he was a bad guy”. Even if he WAS a bad guy it’s irrelevant. You don’t go around shooting people and nations aren’t supposed to kill people in other nations without a state of war or some kind of due process.

      In fact there really is no more clear definition of tyrannical power than the ruler of a nation saying he can arbitrarily kill someone with no due process. That goes back even before the US Bill of Rights to the British Magna Carta.

      And then there is the question of how effective the drones are anyway. I quoted Malala because supposedly she is your hero. She is the kind of person you want to save from Islam (I do to). But SHE doesn’t want drone attacks either! She says, and I think she makes an excellent point, that the attacks end up creating as many or more terrorists as they kill. She is on the ground living with the terrorists and if people weren’t hypocrites they would pay attention to what she says on this issue rather than just listening to her when she (quite rightly) attacks militant Islam.

  9. In reply to number 19 by Red Dog.
    Malala my hero? Why would any man make a 16 year old girl his hero? I haven’t had a hero in life since Denis Law retired from football in1974. As for the Drone attacks, I do not worry about so-called International Law. The enemy only abide by a law that was given to some chap named Muhammad back in the 7th century. Comparing the deaths in Yemen to the deaths on 9/11 is absurd. There is no reason to think that the US has sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person.

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