Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Impossibility of Religious Morality

Let me relate to you a little story. It's terrible. It's horrifying. It will ruin your day. I'm really not kidding about any of this. I'm going to put it below the jump, because, well, if you're having a wonderful day and really, really don't want to wreck it, this time I'm going to give you an out.

Still here?

Here's the story. A girl is raped by three men. Instead of being comforted and helped to try to put her life back together, she is taken before a court of law and made to confess to adultery. Since she confessed, she is liable to sentencing and the full penalty of law. Which, in this case, happens to be death. By stoning. In which she was buried up to her neck while men cast stones at her head until she was dead.

Now, I know, I've talked about things like this before. Each time it's tragic. Every time I feel the urge to throw up. I cannot describe to you the rage that I experience against my fellow human beings in these moments. That we could do this to one another is one of the most terrible things in the world. That we could feel justified in doing so is even worse. I wish I had a poet on hand to put into language just how horrendous this is...but for now, you'll have to deal with the cold rage that I'm feeling.

This story is a little different from the others that I've mentioned before. This is not to put them in any less tragic of a light - none of them should ever have happened. But this one...

First of all, initial reports were that the girl was 23. We now know that that was wrong. She was 13. Thirteen. Sit down and think about that for a moment. Someone's daughter, some tiny girl, was raped by three men and then made to confess to adultery. This of course is where religion comes into the mess. Of course, this all has to do with sexual purity laws. Sharia. This all happened in Somalia, where fundamentalists have a pretty strong hold.

The jaw-dropper though...the moment where I did nearly throw up over myself, was when I heard that this was a public execution. It took place in a football stadium and was attended by about 1,000 people.

Let that sink in. Let it sink in real deep.

One thousand people. One thousand human beings watched a young girl being stoned to death by 50 men. Some few grumbled that it was the wrong thing to do (because she was too young, note...not because it was wrong), but no one raised a hand or a voice to stop it. No one. Now, you can argue about power structures - the people carrying out the murder had guns. That's true. We can link this to the bystander-effect, just like what happened with Kitty Genovese. You can link to simple self-preservation instinct. Those are all nice words. They maybe dull the sting a little.

But it doesn't stop this kind of thing from happening.

It doesn't stop the very structure that makes this sort of thing acceptable in the eyes of people. Am I going to blame this on religion? Oh, yes. But the deeper point is authoritarian dogma/ideology. It's religion's par-excellence, but a totalitarian state is capable of the same thing. Of course, if you agree with scholars like Durkheim, there isn't an analytically significant difference between a religion and a powerful/nationalistic state. The problem, at heart, may be institutionalized power.

But here's the thing - religions arise out of a certain context - historical, sociological, socio-economic. It's no accident that the monotheist world religions are typically very male-dominated. The societies in which they arose had a similar distribution of power. But institutionalized structures like this have a tendency to perpetuate themselves. And not only that, but they justify themselves by reference to a higher authority. So, a religion can self-replicate, perpetuate, and justify itself internally...which leads to all sorts of abuses of power. It provides a logical pathway from "Murder is wrong" to "Murder is quite justified, because God wills it." (To link back to the totalitarian/state argument, likewise, the state can provide a logical pathway to "Just following orders.")

So, ask what point do you think that you could lose all sense of basic human dignity and compassion? What would it take to make you lay down whatever sympathy you may have for your fellow man and murder a 13 year old girl, who was guilty only of being raped by men who apparently got off scot-free?

How about "We will do what Allah has instructed us"?

Is that enough? Apparently, for a great deal of people, it is.

To make this even worse, if that's some point during the stoning, she was exhumed from the ground (apparently her murders thought they had finished the job) and checked by two nurses, who pronounced her still living. So they buried her again.

They buried her again and continued to stone her.

I don't know if you've ever seen someone die of cerebral hemorrhaging. It's not a pretty sight. It's not a good way to go. I cannot imagine the pain and agony that this girl went through in her last few hours of life.

And no one tried to stop them.

You see, this is why I would argue that it is impossible for a religious person to be truly committed to their faith and moral in any sense that we in the modern world would recognize. How could they be? If you go through their "holy" books, what possible example could you offer up to show why this was wrong? Let's be honest - God commands a lot of deaths. God's pretty cavalier about killing people himself. Basically anyone that offends God (morally or otherwise) gets the axe, often in pretty brutal ways. And he's really indiscriminate and imprecise with his rage. He's not against killing an entire city to wipe out a few "evil" doers.

Now, when I say to you "You should not murder someone who offends you. Even if they have offended your moral sense," I would hope that most people would say "Yeah...I might be angry, I would probably argue with them. I might even get in a fight if I were totally drunk...but murder? No, that's too far." But then I look at the religious fundamentalists. They have managed to completely subdue that internal switch. "We will do what Allah has instructed us." In the face of a young girl who had been brutally raped and was begging for her life...they are willing to follow their God and his excuses to commit a cowardly murder.

Now, I can already hear some people howling "But religion also promotes good!" Well...maybe. I'd argue that it's not so much religious indoctrinate, but a self-interested assessment of choices in light of the belief of a moral authority watching over us. Big Brother would promote basically the same ends, towards whatever "morality" he happened to hold. Likewise with religion - it promotes "good," however it chooses to define it.

Here's an interesting observation. I have never opened a newspaper and seen a headline of "Militant Atheists Fly Plane into Building," or "Militant Atheists Storm Capital Building," or "Militant Atheists Seek to Deny Religious Marriages." A related observation - the Bible-belt was also synonymous with the lynching-belt. The more religiously committed an area becomes, the more violence that seems to be perpetrated there. For all of the crazy boogie-man that religions have portrayed us as, atheists really don't do that much. We tend to confine ourselves to books and blogs. Granted, there is a large number of very angry teenagers and kids who have finally had enough of being abused by religion, or being terrified all the time, and become enraged enough to leave. And for a time, they probably carry around a lot of anger, rage, and frustration. I cannot fault them for this. It's probably a natural part of the healing process. Almost all of them grow out of that phase, and most of them become quite sensitive to human needs and suffering.

Now that I think about it, maybe we should be opening papers and seeing headlines about atheists marching. Maybe we should take to the streets and say, finally, "We've had enough. We aren't going to take this any longer. We are not going to allow these things to happen, and we are not going to allow the silence of the world because it interferes with someone's dogma. We are tired of watching fellow human beings being discriminated against and killed because some invisible sky-god, some cultural construct that self-justifies itself, has 'told' his followers to murder someone. It has gone on too long."

We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it any more. (Quick edit - this is in no way a call to violence. That would really be against the whole point I'm driving for.)

Here's the story, via the BBC. That's where I saw it, but I'm giving a definite hat tip to PZ over at Pharyngula for this treatment. I completely agree with his last paragraph.

Before you get all cocky and assume that this is just the Islamic world, or that this post is focused on isn't. Christianity does not have any better track record. The most salient historical example is, of course, the Salem Witch Trials. The difference between Somalia and modern "Christian" nations is that religion does not have absolute power in the West any more. Democracy has, hopefully, irreversibly altered religion itself to force it into a position of at least toleration. But having spoken with and read the writings of many religious people, I don't really have much doubt on how it'd all turn out if Christianity took total control again. There's a hell of a lot of "fatwah envy" going around in evangelical circles these days. And let's not forget Prop 8.

To paraphrase PZ, your stones may have become more sophisticated, but every ballot vote "yes" was another stone cast against those who offended your "moral" and religious sense of propriety. We have not escaped this impulse.

Finally, for a bit of levity, strongly needed at this point:

No comments: