29 March 2015

Is there a greater threat to human rights than religious fundamentalism?

Just a recap of some items in the news so far in 2015:
  • A blogger in Egypt was sentenced to a thousand lashes with a cane (in public) for insulting Islam. Amnesty International, last I checked, is still petitioning for his release. [1
  • In Afghanistan, a woman was beaten to death after being falsely accused of blaspheming the Koran. [2]
  • Sweden is scrambling to restore relations with Saudi Arabia after a diplomat rebuked the country's treatment of women, and Saudi leaders responded by threatening trade relations with Sweden. [3]
  • Muslim extremists killed several people over a cartoon. [4]
  • Here in the US, conservative religious Indiana legislators passed a law legalizing discrimination of LGBT citizens. [5]
  • In my home state of Oklahoma, legislators are trying to pass a law that would ban non-religious marriages. [6]
That's just what I can think of off the top of my head. I'm sure with a little digging, I could find much more vile, contemptible inhumanity coming from religious fundamentalists. Certainly what we face here in the states is not nearly as extreme as what women and religious minorities face in the Middle East, but I can't help but wonder — if fundamentalists were given carte blanc to govern as they please, would Christian fundamentalist nations look much different than their Muslim neighbors?
Women in Kabul march in protest of the killing of the woman known only as Farkhunda, who was publicly beaten to death after she was falsely accused of burning a Koran.
WOMEN IN KABUL MARCH IN PROTEST OF THE KILLING OF THE WOMAN KNOWN ONLY AS FARKHUNDA, WHO WAS PUBLICLY BEATEN TO DEATH AFTER SHE WAS FALSELY ACCUSED OF BURNING A KORAN.
I don't think there is a single greater threat to human and civil rights than religious fundamentalism, and I know that many of my religiously moderate friends would agree. But as a non-believer, I find myself torn.

On the one hand, I accept and celebrate a 'live and let live' outlook; I know many religious people who are wonderful individuals. One of my clients, for example, is a pastor who spent the last week feeding impoverished children in Haiti; I can safely say that he is doing more than I am to make the world a better place, and if he finds inspiration for his good works in his faith, more power to him. I believe that a great many religious people in the world would not hesitate to condemn terrorism, violence, misogyny, and discrimination.

But I'm also sympathetic to an argument that Sam Harris put forth in The End of Faiththat religious moderatism indirectly facilitates extremism by extolling belief by faith as a virtue. Religious moderates have little argument against extremists that the extremists cannot easily co-opt for themselves — that the other guys, for example, are not interpreting the holy book correctly, or that they are simply following the wrong religion entirely. Theologians, unlike scientists, have no methodology by which to objectively identify and weed out erroneous ideas; instead of building a consensus, religious disagreements simply produce more and more schisms. There are tens of thousands of sects and denominations, all at odds with each other as to who has the correct version of the correct religion. Perhaps the problem isn't that the other guys have it wrong, but that people are arguing over holy books in the first place.

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