…people with gods kill people.
Sure, it’s a somewhat facetious way of putting it. But the parallel to the clusterfuck that is the American gun control debate is, I think, warranted. After the horrific attacks on Paris on Friday, #prayforParis was, understandably, trending. But such an attitude is deeply and fundamentally insulting to victims of religious violence, especially but not only those without any religion at all (of which there are rather a lot in France). Explaining why does take a little bit of backgrounding and qualification, so I’ll come back to it presently.
As plenty of smartarse atheists have pointed out, which god are we supposed to be praying to? The one who inspired the massacre (and daily atrocities like it in less white, and therefore less likely-to-inspire-outpourings-of-first-world-grief-and-flags-on-profile-pictures, parts of the world)? The one who just sat by and let it happen? But quite apart from all the problem-of-evil stuff, prayer is immeasurably more useless than the oft-decried “slacktivism” of awareness-raising and petitioning. If all you’re doing is praying, the least you can do is keep it to yourself and stop pretending you’re doing anything actually useful or helpful.
Such attacks invariably provoke a backlash against innocents who happen to share the same (very broadly speaking) religion as the attackers, or who don’t but look like it. (Sikh men, because they wear beards and turbans, are frequently victims of misdirected anti-Muslim bigotry.) This is very much deliberate on the part of the attackers; as Waleed Aly informed us on The Project the other night, Da’esh expressly wants Muslims to feel rejected by Western society, so that they will turn to it. And we know they don’t give two shits about Muslim lives; most of the direct victims of their violence are Muslims themselves.
But in turn, in response to this despicable behaviour, a lot of usually sensible, intelligent people have been at pains to assure us that Da’esh’s ideology is “not Islam” or even “not religion” at all. And this is simply not true. The peaceful, moderate majority don’t have a monopoly on what “real Islam” is, any more than Da’esh does, or than the Anglican church has one on what “real Christianity” is. Religion doesn’t stop being religion when it’s used for evil purposes, any more than for good. All that’s required to be a Christian is to believe Jesus Christ is God; literally anything else is up for interpretation. A similarly broad definition applies to Islam, which can be in principle summed up in one sentence: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” There’s nothing in those propositions that either condones or condemns violence in their name (although there’s plenty in the Bible and the Quran that does).
The real distinction, the one that ought to be made, is between Islam and Muslims. Helpfully, unlike for most other religions, we have quite distinct (although etymologically related) words for them. One can condemn Islam as a violent and autocratic ideology without also condemning its adherents, most of whom are not violent and autocratic. It is not the case that most Muslims are terrorists, or even that most terrorists are Muslims. Vastly more Muslims are oppressed by Islam than are oppressors in its name. Even on the fundamental matter of god’s existence, on which they’re simply factually wrong, that doesn’t make them stupid. Most importantly, Islamist violence is not a valid excuse to deny protection to Muslim refugees, most of whom are fleeing Islamist violence in the first place. But when a Muslim is violent and autocratic, and himself cites his religion as backing up that behaviour, it’s insane and wrong, and I believe counterproductive, to suggest that the religion is not playing a causal part in the violence.
Coming back to my headline, it applies not just to the Paris attackers, but to the morons who decided it was a good excuse for some payback, which makes it doubly inappropriate and offensive. Such people tend to be just as religious as Da’esh’s soldiers. In both cases, religion is playing a causal part, and to deny that severely hampers our understanding of the issues. Indeed, fundamentalist Christianity and hardline Islam are much more similar than their followers would like to admit; they are both horribly autocratic, misogynistic, apocalyptic, reactionary and so on, and they mainly differ on the relatively less important (especially in the real world) matter of theology. Yes, non-religious ideologies can be violent and destructive too — communism being the obvious example. But fascism and tyranny have almost always found religion, especially organised religion, to be helpful to their cause, and that’s not an accident.
The parallel to the gun control debate comes when those advocating prayer for Paris accuse atheists who point out how insulting it is of “politicising the tragedy”. There’s a time and a place for debating theology, they say, and the aftermath of religious violence is not it. This cuts uncomfortably close to the arguments of the NRA, trotted out after every gun massacre in the USA, that those who respond by demanding gun control are taking advantage of a horrible event for their own political ends. But religious violence is a prime example of why religion is often a Bad Thing, as surely as gun violence is a prime example of why a laissez-faire attitude to gun control is a Bad Thing.
You can take the analogy further. Most religious people are sane and peaceful. Most American gun owners are likewise — otherwise we’d see several massacres a day, rather than roughly every week. It might even make sense, as an individual, to carry a gun, given the situation in the States. Likewise, professing a religious affiliation can be the sensible thing to do, even if you don’t privately believe in it, if the alternatives are discrimination, ostracism, violence, or outright murder, as they are in many parts of the world. At its heart, a big part of the issue is simply that humans are notoriously bad at solving collective action problems.
Where it falls down, of course, is that it’s possible (politics notwithstanding) to ban guns. Banning religion, by contrast, would be a terrible idea, even if it were possible. The solution to the problems of religious extremism, by and large, has to be in education and dialogue, and those in good faith, not in coercion. And pointing out how advocating prayer in response to atrocities is unhelpful and insulting is an important part of that.