But it’s a cause nonetheless.
Referring to the murders in Afghanistan, the Heresiarch reminds us that “such events occur when several factors come together in a largely unpredictable way, and are usually connected with local politics and personalities on the ground.” That is certainly correct, but he also claims that the barbaric killings were “not the fault of Islam.” Now this is political correctness of the pejorative sort. How can it not be the fault of Islam – among other factors – that a group of people feel sufficiently moved to commit murder because of the burning of a book? How can it not be the fault of Islam when it is this religion that asserts the sacredness and infallibility of that very book, thus turning it into an object beyond reproach, much less physical insult? How can it not be the fault of Islam when it is its mortal spokespeople who, claiming to speak on behalf of a deity as manifested in Islamic ideology, incite their fellow religionists to kill?
Sam Harris makes it quite clear that of all the major religions, it is the followers of Islam who tend to be distinctly oversensitive to criticism and insult:
The point is not (and will never be) that some free person spoke, or wrote, or illustrated in such a manner as to inflame the Muslim community. The point is that only the Muslim community is combustible in this way. […] Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name. Our accommodation of this psychopathic skewing of priorities has, more and more, taken the form of craven and blinkered acquiescence.
Furthermore, the silence of Muslim moderates can be deafening. The reflex of many is to gloss over the unsavoury aspects implicit in their faith and to cry persecution by those who have good reason to worry about Islam’s inherent violence. As Harris observes:
The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we will kill you. Of course, the truth is often more nuanced, but this is about as nuanced as it ever gets: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we peaceful Muslims cannot be held responsible for what our less peaceful brothers and sisters do. When they burn your embassies or kidnap and slaughter your journalists, know that we will hold you primarily responsible and will spend the bulk of our energies criticizing you for “racism” and “Islamophobia.”
American Humanist Association president Dave Niose is cognisant of the multiple factors behind cases of religious violence like the Afghan massacre. He is certainly not laying the blame entirely at Islam’s door.
A secularist might be tempted, in the face of these events, to make a broad indictment of all religion, but to be fair we must acknowledge that such a reaction would be overly simplistic. Events such as these, when analyzed thoroughly, can usually be understood as resulting from complex factors of sociology, psychology, culture, and even economics. Surely, to place all the blame on religion alone would be hasty.
But Niose doesn’t let religions like Islam off the hook either:
Nevertheless, just as it would be wrong to simplistically attribute the violence entirely to religion, it would be similarly inappropriate to deny the obvious religious connection. Any objective assessment, not just of these events but of religion itself, must seriously ponder the chain of causation that so often leads from religion to irrational violence.
None of this is to suggest that the actual perpetrators do not bear full responsibility for their actions. The individuals who beat, cut, stabbed and hacked at defenseless people – whose only crime was being at the wrong place at the wrong time – are examples of everything that is ugly and contemptible in the human psyche.
It is a hollow argument to say that such terrible events wouldn’t occur if religion ceased to exist. There is no guarantee that humanity won’t simply find some other temporal excuse to butcher each other. But at this present point of our history, religion is intricately bound up with actions both laudable and despicable. Too often it is tied to the latter.
UPDATE: Jerry Coyne has posted over at Why Evolution Is True on how religious apologists try to absolve religion of all the harms largely caused by it.