No thinking person can escape being horrified by the actions carried out in the name of God by religious fanatics across the world today. Killings, rapes, executions, wholesale slaughter, genocide, torture, and sometimes just ordinary nastiness — a litany of horrors that deny humankind the right to claim ourselves to be a uniformly emotionally intelligent species.
This is religion run amok, a fervour that has made both madmen and victims of millions.
So I identify very strongly with the secular left who point to these excesses and say (this aspect of) religion is a bad thing. I agree that actions of religious fanatics such as these are an embarrassment, a blot on mankind’s proud record of startlingly rapid evolution into the dominant sentient species of this planet.
Yet for me the presence of an active and loving God makes sense of the world as I see it and understand it to be. There is a harmony there, looking beyond the fine print of the Bible and understanding what it is NOT saying and correlating this with the mystery of the wider universe as scientists are beginning to unravel it. My experiences of relationship with this God of mine are all positive, in a manner that defies statistical probability. And if this is my experience, I can also relate to the millions of others who have similar experiences.
So where on Earth does this sense of entitlement to kill in the name of God come from?
In my view there is a virtual switch that one decides to activate in one’s life for religious experience. We have both the freedom to acknowledge it and the freedom to ignore it. Or “should have”, that is. The moment others decide for us what we should or should not be feeling, doing or believing, there is the tipping point, the moment that a shared belief becomes a potential weapon of manipulation towards achieving man’s ends, and not those of God.
The essence in this is freedom. Freedom to believe, or to not believe. If a religion does not offer believers freedom, but takes it away, what is there of value enough to replace it? Absence of freedom in all areas of life, and particularly in belief, is not a blessing, but a curse. It is this freedom that the leaders of fundamentalist groups seek to demolish, and to replace it with critical comparisons that encourage hate of people who are different. The religious organisations with the most rules will be the ones where both fundamentalism and hate flourish.
Christianity hit this rock bottom 500 years ago in the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, and remnants remain in Christian fundamentalism in churches like the Westboro Baptist Church and, more widely, inflexible attitudes like creationism towards scientific discovery, and church-sanctioned homophobia such as that expressed by the Ugandan government.
I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that fundamental Islam appears to be at the same stage now in the misapplication of “jihad” — itself not a simple concept — and the shocking horrors perpetrated in the name of Allah. Thank Allah/God for the moderate Islamic leaders who risk their own lives in standing against this tyranny.
The Christian Bible suggests that God has an opinion on this issue. “Love your neighbour as yourself” is a commandment second only to that to love God. It’s an all-encompassing and unconditional instruction, making no reference whatsoever to the neighbour’s religion, race, sexuality or politics. In essence it says “Even if I don’t agree with you, Neighbour, even if I think you are wrong, I’m going to treat you with the same respect AND LOVE I have for myself”. This is a commandment to treat people well despite them being themselves, letting them be themselves, allowing them to be free to be themselves. You don’t have to be a religious person to see the value thereof.
So, when a religion decides the limitations on who can do what and with who, and that there should be punishments for transgressions meted out to anyone who does not share those beliefs, it starts on a slippery slope down to a hell where murder and mayhem rule as agency of its God.
While the world implodes in religious hatred, with Sunni versus Shia, Jew versus Arab, Christian versus Muslim, Muslim versus Hindu, atheist versus theist and any combination of the above, it is worth reflecting on just how much difference a universal drive to encourage all men and women to respect this freedom could make. No one is exempt.
If we could all adopt the unconditional love spoken about earlier, letting people be free to be themselves without coercion, and treating everyone with the same respect we believe we deserve, the world would have to be a better, richer, safer and happier place. It could not be any otherwise.
This is a vision of a miracle well worth praying for, no matter who your God.
Image – Demonstrators call for the end to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) terrorism during a Kurdish demonstration in front of the White House on August 9, 2014, in Washington, DC.