Thanks to Nidal Hasan, the national echo-chamber is yet again clumsily tackling the perennial question of whether this or that religion, or this or that religious text, actually justifies violence and evil. We’ve got everything from people pre-bracing for the inevitable anti-Muslim backlash to a Forbes columnist angling to turn “Going Muslim” into the next “Going Postal.” Oy.
Per my policy of not trying to analyze events I can’t do anything about until there’s like, some actual information to work with, I don’t have much to add on the subject of Hasan’s motivations (he’s talking, so we may find out more soon) and their broader implications. I do, however, find the general question of ideological culpability fascinating.
Thoughtful religious people object, I think correctly, to the accusation that any major religion directly supports or legitimates violence, let alone indiscriminate spree killings. They point out that religious texts are complicated: that people can often read very different meanings out of them. That understanding the “true” message of thousand-year old faiths takes more than just scattered pullquotes. That holding people who read a text in a non-literal sense responsible for the interpretations of fanatical literalists is unfair.
And I actually agree with these sorts of defenses. But I still don’t think that lets religious texts, or those that imbue them with special authority, off the hook.
Because the problem I have is less with the specific content of any given holy book or papal bull, but rather with the general idea (one shared and supported sometimes by even very progressive religions) of promoting the primacy of any central religious text or authority in the first place.
What’s problematic is the idea that HERE is wisdom: that THIS one source contains special and uniquely authoritative insights into morality and truth. That these stories, sutras, stanzas, gospels: that they alone are the ones you need to study and understand in order to figure out what is right and good and important in life (if you’re only going to see one movie this lifetime: make it the Passion of the Christ!). It’s that attitude itself, in nearly any form, which is dangerous and objectionable.
Because of course people can and will read out what they want from these texts. That’s true of nearly any source of information. The key difference with a religious text, however, is that indeed people read out what they want… but then further feel instinctively justified in thinking that the entire moral weight of the UNIVERSE stands behind whatever they decide the text is telling them to think or do.
That idea is and should be regarded with deep discomfort by any fan of modern democratic/liberal ideals. The core principle of a healthy civil society is that there IS no final authority, never any place where anyone can stop and say “well, I’ve got all this figured out now, no need to ask any further questions, or keep consulting my conscience, or keep talking it out with other people.” Likewise, there is and should never be any one book or selection of insights on human existence that is regarded as the final word on anything, especially when it comes to troubling moral quandaries.
I would never claim that religious conviction is solely to blame for any atrocity, but the habits of absolute conviction can certainly help grease the wheels.
I highly encourage people to read the great religious texts: all of them (they’re fascinating, troubling, invigorating, and often indispensable to anyone seeking greater understanding of human thought and history). And while not a believer myself, I’m not against religious belief per se. Nor am I against people taking strong moral stands. I just don’t think anyone should delve into any text while encouraged to believe that it’s the last or most important thing they’ll ever read. Or, worst and most dangerous of all: that once they appreciate THIS one text, that all other voices, from other works, from other minds, from other perspectives, from even their own conscience… can henceforth be ignored. Or silenced.