Je Suis Charlie Redux

The attack on Charlie Hebdo seems to be viewed in two different ways in Western thought and I feel both of them are in error.  The first is anti-Islamic, but pro-religion.  This response says that the attacks happened because Islam teaches violence and hatred, as opposed to other religions (generally Christianity) which preaches universal brotherhood and rainbows, which I dealt with in my previous post.  The other similar argument is that people who perpetrate this and  similar attacks are not “true Muslims” as, in this view, Islam also teaches universal brotherhood and rainbows, but a few on the lunatic fringe just have not gotten the message yet.  Both views are seriously in error.  In fact all the Abrahamic religions share the same fault, and perhaps all religions do.

In Judaism, the Torah clearly calls for the death penalty for those who worship false gods.  Also, the Hebrew Bible is awash with instances where those who oppose the chosen people of god are put to the sword (men, women and children) to make way for the tribes of Israel to move in.  Anyone who has read the Bible can cite countless references to this kind of behavior instigated or sanctioned by god himself.  In fact, the next Testament of the Bible claims that Jesus himself was killed in accordance with the laws of the Torah regarding blasphemy.  It is quite likely that the producers of material like Charlie Hebdo would also be found guilty under such laws, and therefore face a death sentence, sanctioned by the “church” itself.  The fact that many modern Jews find this worldview abhorrent only means that they have found a sense of morality beyond their holy book, I would argue is as a result of secularization, which has allowed them to cherry pick better ethical principles from the Hebrew Bible and other places.

In Christianity, we have to say, the situation is even worse.  We have to face the historical reality that if Charlie Hebdo had existed, say 600 years ago, it would have been the Church itself that carried out the killings, not some fringe radical group.  Again, the number of killings carried out in the church’s name during the middle ages as they tried and stamp out various “heresies” is so well known that individual citations are not necessary.

St. Augustine provided the rational for such killings.  His reasoning was that, since people who follow heretical beliefs will suffer in hell for all eternity, it is therefore ethical, a form of tough love if you will, to forcibly convert those people.  If the conversion did not take, his reasoning then called for the death of the heretic.  Better for one heretic to die and go to hell than for him to live and “infect” many others who would also be on the path to hell.  If you agree with Augustine’s premises, then his argument is perfectly logical.  And for at least 1000 years following Augustine, the Church itself (not some radical fringe group) did follow his logic, using forced conversions, torture and death to try and scrub the world free from “heresy.”

Once again, many Christians now find this worldview abhorrent, preferring (perhaps) to see hell as more metaphorical than real or perhaps as seeing god as more merciful and less likely to send simply “misguided” people to eternal punishment.  Again, I would argue that this interpretation goes beyond what is written in the holy books and was certainly influenced in the West by broader, secular movements such as the Enlightenment era.  Again, if you cherry pick the Bible you can find support for such ideas as ending slavery, even though throughout the Old and New Testaments there is no indication that slavery is a moral evil in and of itself.  It was secular civilization that brought this idea and other ethical principles we now take for granted to our societies, in my opinion.

And finally in Islam, we see the same process, but the process is behind that of the West because there are still strong institutional forces for “fundamentalism” in the Islamic world.  Can you say “Saudi Arabia?”  According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudis recently passed an “anti-terrorism” law that “appears to criminalize virtually all dissident thought or expression as terrorism.”   They also state that one of the provisions of the law makes it a crime to “call for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”  So, let’s think this one through, atheism undermines the country, therefore is treason and treason is a capital offense.  The editors of Charlie Hebdo, could they exist in Saudi Arabia, would not be alive long — and that is under official government policy, not some “radical fringe group.”  The Saudis are well known for using their oil money to spread their fundamentalist views throughout the Islamic world.  And, of course they are among the closest friends of the United States.

Now, much like many Christians and Jews, many Muslims find this medieval worldview, well, evil.  Al Jazeera looks at this question and finds that Islamic scholars have found that the decrees of the Qu’ran fall into categories “not all of which can be used to issue absolute legal rulings binding upon all Muslims for all times.”  In other words, in their view, the meaning of the Qu’ran can change over time.  Shall we say, much like the Bible.  Shall we also say as modern secularism moves us away from the Bronze Age ethics of the holy books that the Abrahamic religions are based on.

Many religionists say that we need god to provide an ethical framework for people to live by, some sense of absolute right and wrong.  I call BS on that argument.  Secular society has continued to evolve in our sense of ethics (yes, not always in a good way, but I would argue that our state of ethical development is at least a little better than it was 300 years ago and much better than 1000 years ago) in a direction that many mainstream relgionists want to claim came from within their religions.  I feel that view is wrong, the pressure for more “modern” ethics came from outside the churches.  In fact, being controlled by the church is the very definition of “medieval!”

To be fair, a vast majority of people within the Abrahamic religious traditions have eagerly accepted these modern ethical ideas and rightly condemn the medieval barbarity that was shown in the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  But they should also begin to see that they issue these condemnations not because of their religion, but rather in spite of it.  Again and again we see that believing in eternal “justice,” that is to say heaven and hell, causes more problems than it solves.

It is time for everyone to leave those concepts behind and join the modern world that has no need of supernatural “consequences” for our actions.  We have the tools we need to live together on this earth together, and religion is not one of them.


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