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September 17th, 2012
Freethought San Marcos: Religious unrest, violence and intolerance

Freethought San Marcos: A column

The killing of a U.S. ambassador in Libya by armed men has become political fodder for Mitt Romney to attack President Obama in an attempt to blame the President for the actions of Islamist reactionaries, perhaps terrorists. All the facts haven’t been sorted out and may never be. What we do know is that religious-based violence and intolerance is nothing new, whether in this country or elsewhere.

I was uncomfortable with Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith when it was released eight years ago. I spoke out against his using so-called holy books, the Koran and the Bible, to define Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Few people follow literally all of the precepts, examples, and teachings found in either book. But Harris used the words of the books to paint those religions as both absurd and dangerous. I certainly agree that some of the adherents of all three of those religions are dangerous, and I find their supernatural beliefs beyond reason, but that is no cause to paint them all with the same brush, as Harris does.

We know that there are many variations of belief among Muslims and among Christians. The World Christian Encyclopedia reports that there are 34,000 separate Christian groups around the globe. There may be as many variations among Muslims, as well. Many such variations arise from disagreements about the meaning of portions of the holy books, from personality differences among adherents, from cultural preferences, and for a multitude of other reasons.

It is not possible to judge the beliefs of any religion by merely reading its holy book, but it is easier to ridicule various religions or condemn them for their beliefs by using their traditional stories, as well as their religious practices, to explain what is wrong with them. For instance, I’ve never known a Jew or a Christian who was willing to sacrifice his first-born son because of the story about Abraham’s apparent willingness to do so in obedience to a command by God. My view is that any God that would require me to take such an act is not one I could respect or follow. Extremists will use that story to support absolute adherence to what they think or claim God wants them to do. That is one way some people justify the killing of abortion doctors by some Christian extremists. And portions of the Koran are used by Muslim extremists to justify stonings and murders and terrorism.

The apparent cause of the most recent violence toward the personnel working in the American embassy in Libya is a video clip found on YouTube from a film that purports to tell the truth about Islam and its prophet Muhammed. I watched a few minutes of the video before its absurd, ridiculous, amateur production made me realize what a waste of time it would be to watch the whole 14 minutes. Apparently, some Islamist extremists took a different view. Outraged, they vented their fury by committing acts of violence against people who had nothing whatever to do with the video, except that they represented the US, the country where the video apparently originated, supported by Christian extremists.

The video did not cause the violence. A decision by a group of armed extremists caused the violence. All of us may become outraged occasionally, but if that outrage leads to violent acts, that is the responsibility of those who commit the violence. It is just as likely, however, that the video was just a convenient excuse for some extremists to engage in violence for their political purposes, completely unrelated to the video. One thing we know for sure:  religious liberty is not an ideal prized by all people around the world.

Religious liberty is, however, a fundamental principle of American life. I am not a religious moderate, as Sam Harris likes to call people who accept religious pluralism. I am non-religious, which is a life-stance that is supported by the same precept of religious liberty that supports Jews, Christians in all of their manifestations, Muslims in all their variations, Hindus, Janes, Taoists, Sikhs, Wiccans, and all of the other 19, 20, 21 or 270 identified faith groups, depending on how they are classified. Worldwide, out of a population of about 7 billion, around 1 billion people follow no religion. In the US, I am one of about 50 million non-believers. Since I am in the minority, I am interested in better understanding what other people believe even though I haven’t found their beliefs appealing or convincing so far.

Because religious liberty is such a fundamental value in my life, I don’t try to talk people out of their religious beliefs no matter how I may view those beliefs. This doesn’t mean that I am unwilling to discuss religion. Quite the contrary. Over the past ten years, I have read and discussed with others as many books about religion as about politics. This study and the importance of religious liberty in the founding of our nation – a political decision made by our forebears – has led me to want to find ways to mix religion and politics effectively and respectfully.

Recently, the public interest group People for the American Way issued its third edition of a pamphlet, “12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics.” (To read the entire pamphlet on-line, see). It provides a direction that can be useful to the nation and to the world in securing religious liberty for us all.

Author Salman Rushdie expressed his views about mixing religion and politics in an interview with Bill Moyers in 2006 (as quoted in Moyers’ introduction to the “12 Rules”):

“Citizens of a free society do not preserve their freedom by pussyfooting around their fellow citizens’ opinions, even their most cherished beliefs. In free societies you must have the free play of ideas, there must be an argument, and it must be impassioned and untrammeled. Free societies are dynamic, noisy, turbulent, and full of radical disagreement. You can’t cry foul when your ideas are challenged, even when you assert your ideas of God.”

Rushdie knows something about this topic. Many will remember that in 1989 Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini demanded Rushdie’s execution because of the way he portrayed the prophet Mohammed in his novel The Satanic Verses. Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie demonstrates the same extremist impulse that has given rise to countless acts of terrorism by Islamic extremists throughout the world, though I recognize that religious grievances are not the impulse for much of the terrorism. Instead, the interpretation of the Koran by Islamic terrorists is used to justify much of the terrorism instigated for political reasons, sometimes intertwined with religious purposes.

The section of the “12 Rules” about the discussion of religion in the political arena presents several rules that are relevant to much of the religious extremism that manifests itself in violence:

“Political discourse should respect religious pluralism.”

“Political figures and the media should not treat religious constituencies as monolithic; political and religious leaders should not claim to speak for an entire religious community on public policy issues.”

“Religious and political leaders should not ‘cry wolf’ about religious persecution.”

This latter rule involves the hyper-sensitivity to criticism of many religions, especially that manifested by Muslim extremists. A society where great umbrage is taken by large numbers of people to criticism of a particular religion and that umbrage leads to violence is not a free society. Libya, for instance was under despotic rule for decades. It appears to be in the midst of a religious-driven civil war that will not lead to a free society. The attack on the American embassy seems to have been caused more by Libya’s internal conflicts than by the disrespect shown to Islam and its Prophet promoted by some Christian crackpots in America or by people of other religions who have their own religious and political agendas.

The people who commit unjustified violence for either religious or political reasons should be held accountable. Wherever such violence is a real threat, the US is entitled to protect its citizens. Of equal importance is the need to have a discussion and debate in this country about America’s role in the world. Since World War II, we have not done a good job in the world by using our military dominance to bend the world to our will. We failed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East at large. The closest we came to a successful conclusion was the limited war directed by George H. W. Bush to push Iraq out of Kuwait.

Maybe there is a lesson there. Maybe US military power will work if used for limited and clear objectives. It has not been effective when used in wars waged with constantly-changing objectives, or launched for bogus motives. If we apply our own stated values to the rest of the world’s people, we should never again send our troops to mold the world – or a part of it – into our vision of progress or stability, especially when our purpose is often to control natural and economic resources, not to protect human rights. It is time to stop assuming American exceptionalism, and start dealing with the world with respect for everyone’s rights. This is especially so if you consider them God-given rights.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.

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7 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Religious unrest, violence and intolerance

  1. Lamar, When you study the historical context and academic intentions of this ancient biblical story of Abraham sacrificing his son on the mountain, you will find that this story is actually a radical statement AGAINST child sacrifice. It was radically againist culture and religious teachings in this primitive world for Abraham to NOT sacrifice his son. Since the father did NOT kill or sacrifice his son, we biblical students know and understand that this story is a radical anti-culture, anti-child sacrifice, anti-traditional story which was taught to stop the practice of child sacrifice.
    Good religion is always progressive, inclusive, concerned about human life, radically human, always controversial within the limited thinking of the religious communities and within the minds of the non-religious thinkers, and often very hard to understand by casual outsiders.
    You and I and all other tax-paying Americans do sacrifice our sons and daughters daily on the altar of Freedom and Materialism and Capitalism. You pay your tax dollars to pay young children (19 year old soldiers) to go fight in wars in your place so that you and I can continue to have the right to freely do this verbal jousting from within the luxury of our homes daily.
    Thanks for your writings and thoughts.
    Gary Smith

  2. I am aware that there is more than one way to interpret or understand the story of Abraham and Isaac. I was interested in how it can be misconstrued to justify violence by claiming that a person is just doing God’s will.

    As to our children being sacrificed in foreign wars, I concur that this is happening and it is something I have fought against my entire life – mostly because they are not fighting for our freedoms, but for the protection of corporations to exploit the natural resources of other countries or in an attempt to control the rest of the world and bend others to our wishes.

    I appreciate your sharing your thoughts about these matters.

  3. I enjoy reading what others have to say on these matters also. I always enjoyed teaching World Religion classes and, to the extent that it is humanly possible, move from behind my own background and experiences and to teach a course on major world religions from as an objective position as possible. None of us can completely move beyond our own humanity in any academic setting or classroom or discussion like this.

    I always find it fascinating when someone claims to be non-religious. What that generally means in actuality is that this person is not lined up with and living within or giving money or allegiance to a particular religious organization.

    But you and I both know that every belief — including a belief that there is no god or superior being or creator or a belief that there is no life after death — well, those are religious beliefs also that govern your life as well as my religious beliefs govern my life.

    When I deal over the years with non-religious people (and the military has its share) it is always interesting to me when these people have to make all the same decisions facing them when their loved ones die. What to do with the body? What to do with telling friends or family. What ceremony do we have or not have? Do we just do nothing? No grave. No funeral? No ceremony? If we have a ceremony for the dead, then who participates, who leads it, what is said,where is it held, etc? All religious questions. Every person is a religious person because every person has to face these Death Questions. How we answer those questions is our religion and those answers do govern our lives and frame our existence.

    Granted, a non-religious person like yourself may not be lined up with an organized church or religious organization or “501 (C) 3” church group, but whatever framework you latch onto and then operate out of in terms of dealing with humanity and other religions and public prayers and private beliefs is your religion, organized or not.

    Like you well said, this is all noisy and turbulent stuff to kick around in our free society.

    You and I may have fought against sending our kids off to wars (equivalent of ancient form of child sacrifice)by verbal jousting with authorities and with the public, but you and I do pay taxes and we do support the child sacrifice system that we enjoy the benefits of. So both of us do practice, fund, and support our own created Child Sacrifice system of beliefs. You and I live in this country and we are not on the sidelines as casual observers…we fund our systematic child sacrifice endeavors.

    I used to enjoy telling my students in World Religion classes that to get the most out of the course and the discussions requires a huge amount of honesty and self-reflection about one’s life and one’s own beliefs and one’s own humanity.

    We all have our hands dirty in this country on these matters. We are all religious beings, no matter what creed we claim and what creed we distance ourselves from. Being human is a religious endeavor that none of us escapes because we all have to land upon a certain belief system in order to live. Actually, we land upon a certain belief system if we chose to end our live also. Being human is inseparable from being a religious person.

    All learnings and teachings and knowledge can be used for good by good people and for bad by very bad people. Organized religion is not the culprit in our lives. Bad people are the culprits. Terrorist Christians are no better than terrorist Muslims nor are they any better than terrorists who are non-religious.

    Again, enjoying the discussion and I appreciate your comments.
    Gary Smith

  4. When one’s loved one dies, the issue is not if one believes in a deity or not; it is what best serves the rest of the family.

  5. Agree. But it surprises me how often the family members shape the entire farewell process (funeral, participants, etc) upon their particular religious beliefs. As a minister and as a chaplain, I have been told by more than one widow, “I want this funeral to have nothing religious in it. No scripture readings. No prayers. No reference to religion.”

    It is always my honor to honor the requests and directives of the grieving family and do and say as they request in regards to their wishes on content and tone and structure of a funeral. As a chaplain who is often called to do the funeral of a person whom I have never met, it is striking to me how some people want a religious figure to do a “non’religious ceremoney.” Just an interesting observation which pertains to this current discussion. How one believes, either as a “religious person” or as a “non-religious person”, does shape ones life and ones planning of a funeral for one’s self and one’s loved ones.

  6. As someone who knows a lot about funerals (I have done volunteer consumer work related to the funeral industry for over 20 years), when my parents died, I followed their wishes. In both cases, I organized a Methodist-type memorial service, which was their desire. My personal preferences had nothing to do with the religious nature of the service. I honored them doing what they wanted. There were some personal additions – remembrances that I wrote – and a flag ceremony to honor their service in the Army in WW II (my mother was in the Army Nursing Corp; my dad in the regular Army).

    As to the question about my self-description as a non-believer, what I mean is that I don’t find any evidence for the supernatural, whether that be deities, ghosts, or spirits – or the tooth fairy. So, I don’t believe in any of that, though I play along with the tooth fairy for the benefit of my grand-daughter. I try to determine truth by the application of reason, logic, and evidence, rather than by relying on external authority, tradition, and superstition. Through study and experience, I have concluded that humans have the ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. Like religious people, I realize that none of us ever fully achieve these aspirations, but they are worth aspiring to for me.

    Since I don’t follow any religious dogma, I don;’t consider that I am religious. Obviously, we are all free to define religious however we choose. I ascribe generally to the Humanist Manifesto III, which can be found at .

    I see death as a natural part of life. Every living thing on earth dies. The universe has no purpose. It merely exists controlled by natural laws. Human beings find their purpose within themselves in the way they lead their lives.

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