Monday 19 October 2015

Thoughts on the Moral Basis of Religious Violence

I have been thinking of something for a while. As you probably know by now, I have been researching as much about ISIS as I can, and I’ve watched many of the videos they’re (un)kind enough to put online.

As an aside, I’m always struck by the difference between ISIS practice here and that of African Islamic insurgent groups like Boko Haram or Al Shabaab. It’s hard even to find still photos of those two groups’ troops. But then they aren’t trying to make a Hollywood style media splash, one of the many, many cartoonishly villainous things ISIS does that makes it hard to believe that they’re anything but an artificial bogeyman designed to stampede people into supporting the faltering Global War of Imperialism, alias Terror.

It was while watching yet another ultra-brutal Syrian beheading video – this one from the blood soaked war criminal Barack Hussein Obama’s stable of moderate cannibals and Al Qaeda surrogates, not ISIS – I asked myself, once again, a question I’d thought about many times before.

The original moderate cannibal, Abu Saqqar

These people, I thought, all claim to be acting in the name of a religion. In this case it’s Islam, while others, like the cannibal Christian militias in Africa, claim to be working in the name of Christianity; the Zionazi settler vermin in Occupied Palestine torture and kill Palestinians for the Judaic YHWH; the brutal Hindunazi lynch mobs in India cite Hinduism as their excuse to murder Muslims; and their counterparts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka burn people alive and beat them to death in defence of Buddhism. They murder, rob, rape, massacre, all in the name of religions.

Christian militia, Central African Republic [Source]

But are they really religious people?

In the case of ISIS, for one, a clear argument can be made out that they are not really Muslims at all. They have repeatedly, over and over, violated Islamic rules of warfare. They claim authority – unilaterally – over all Muslims in the world. They run what is basically a mafia state which rules by coercion and maltreats minorities, including fellow “believers in the Book” – Christians. They follow no established school of Islamic jurisprudence and they pretty much make up their interpretation of the religion as they go along. In other words, theirs is a rule by opportunism.

Are the rest any different?

I’m, of course, an atheist, but for the sake of argument, I’m willing to take at face value what the adherents of the multiple One True Religions say about their many different faiths; and if there’s one thing that runs through them, it’s the idea that one shouldn’t do to someone else what one doesn’t want done to oneself. In common discourse this is known as the “Golden Rule”. Do these people who kill in the name of religion obey this Golden Rule?

Of course they don’t.

It’s quite true that, to some extent, they can find some kind of justification of their crimes in some particular and warped interpretation of their Holy Books. Thus, the Hindunazis justify lynching Muslims on the basis that “cow killers” should not be allowed to live; Christians burned and hanged untold numbers of “witches” on the same plea about the King James Bible. In other instances, the religious authorities themselves, knowing that even a deliberate mistranslation of the religious scripture couldn’t cover their planned crimes, issued waivers and special justifications. That’s how Pope Urban II sent masses of European peasants rampaging, murdering, looting and destroying on the First Crusade – by promising absolution for all sins past and present to anyone who died in the course of the bloodletting. Just about anything, therefore, becomes possible when slanted in the right fashion by the top religious authority.

But do the troops on the ground – the ISIS men, or the BSWCBHO’s Jabhat al Nusra and moderate cannibal proxies, the Central African Republic murderers who go around with crucifixes hanging from the stocks of their guns, the Hindunazi mobs armed with iron rods and incendiary bombs made of gas cylinders, and so on – do they, individually, believe that they are actually doing as the religion they claim to defend tells them to?

Unless there is a very dangerous level of mental dissociation present here, I don’t think they do.

Let me explain. It is my contention that the people who are actually hacking off heads, burning villages, murdering innocuous people, and the like in the name of their religion are, in truth, not really believers at all. I won’t call them atheists, but I would call them at least agnostic where the issues of their own faiths are concerned.

Suppose now that I’m a religious stormtrooper for XYZism. My religion, officially, preaches love and forgiveness and getting along with people of all other faiths; adherence to these tenets promises an eternal reward in a hereafter while defiance will, I am assured, plunge me into the deepest pits of hell. However, I am involved in a savage religious war in which I murder, rape, rob and destroy without compunction, and with the full encouragement of my putative superiors. Can I fully believe their assurances that my actions are in line with the tenets I just mentioned, which enjoin me to love all people and forgive all their sins? Can I be certain that my deity, whoever that is, will forgive my actions, just because my superiors say so?

Unless I am a total automaton, without any shred of an ability to think on my own, I can not.

In other words, by following orders to kill and hack and dismember, I am basically doing what I would have perhaps done anyway, only I am able to assuage my conscience, at least partly, with the thought that this has the permission of my superiors.  If anyone’s to blame, it’s they, not I. It’s they, not I, who should be consigned to eternal torment – if any should follow as the consequences of my actions.

But again, unless I am very, very dim-witted, this is not a mental shield that offers much in the way of protection. In fact, the only way I can continue to do what I am doing and not come up against the inescapable conclusion that by going against the tenets of my faith I will suffer the consequences is if...I do not believe in the tenets of my faith. In other words, I’m only playing a part, and the religion I profess to follow is merely a fiction that serves to justify my crimes.

The old Inquisition, in fact, had a neat way of getting around this inconvenient little fact. The monks who tortured confessions out of “heretics” and the like would not sully their hands with actual blood; they had others do it for them. And then they would hand over their victims to the secular arm for execution. It would be the kings and barons who would bear the moral stain of burning these hapless people at the stake, not the monks themselves, who could therefore retain a clear and unsullied conscience.

It reminds me of a crime novel I once read, in which a loan shark defended his activities: "I'm not a bad guy. If you don't pay me back the money I lent you, with vigorish, I won't break your head. No, I'll call my enforcer Vinnie. He'll break your head."

To us, a thousand years later, it sounds like appalling hypocrisy, and undoubtedly it was. It also serves to recall that the monks of the time were the biggest property owners of Europe, and wielded political power of a level few despots today can dream of. Popes bought their office, whored and stole, and behaved in a manner to rival the decadent later Roman emperors. How could all that be squared with the original Christian ideals of poverty and simplicity?

Simple: it couldn’t, if they had the slightest real belief in their professed religion. They were an upscale version of the ISIS “judges” and executioners, no more.

It’s also my contention that out of a given group of people, most are, when all is said and done, morally weak. If given the opportunity, and the moral excuse, they’ll go along with whatever the majority of their neighbours are doing. Later, perhaps, they might look back and be appalled by their own behaviour – but not at the time it is going on. At that time they’ll do as others are doing, and reassure themselves it’s all right because everyone else is doing it anyway. The majority of the mobs that go periodically on rampages of murder and loot in South Asia, for instance, are mostly otherwise normal people who are morally weak, to the extent that they’ll do as directed by a few unscrupulous political leaders and agent provocateurs.

And these are normal people, not the kind of sociopathic thug actively recruited, throughout history, by fascist militias. When it comes to those, from the stormtroopers of Hitler’s SA to India’s Hindunazis – or the headchoppers of ISIS, or the BSWCBHO’s moderate cannibals, come to that – any excuse will do, as a cover to unleash their violent instincts.

Religion, in this case, is an enabler, nothing more.


  1. Very interesting thoughts. Many things come to mind: the hypocrisy inherent in human nature; the moral bankruptcy of the excuse "I was just following orders"; and a warning against judging others to harshly. "There but for the grace of God..."

  2. Religion is a handy excuse, yeah.

    ISIS seems a bit like villains from an action movie. Early on, they'd kill one American, then one Brit, then one Frenchman, etc., just to make sure they made everyone mad. Because they're nowhere if the West doesn't freak out about them.

    Not to mention beheading one person at a time is the least effective method of murdering people. A car bomb could take out way more people - meaning that they're only doing this for the press and not the bang.

    In fact, if ISIS was the villain in an action movie, I'd roll my eyes and say it was too cartoonish to be believed.

  3. It was nice lo learn someone is taking time to research.

    There is one word you wrote, FAITH. This word is different than religion.
    FAITH is global while religion is regional.

    Some of the countries you mentioned are driven by RELIGION. U.S.A. is driven by a GOVERNMENT. The regions you are interested do not recognize GOVERNMENT; instead, they follow RELIGION as their only guide to rule. GOVERNMENT accepts RELIGION within its system and believes that a RELIGION should not be used to disregard life. Here is where the truth lies not FAITH.

  4. As an old heathen, I'd say that religion IS just an excuse for whatever they do. This applies to ALL of the gangs you mentioned here.


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