May 28, 2010

Do Ordinary Religious People Share Responsibility for Religious Extremism?

When PZ Myers (Pharyngula) recently described Islam as "the religion of ignorance and hate," I found myself having mixed feelings. Obviousmohammad cartoons.jpegly, he's making the point that those who claim that Islam is a religion of peace are denying the behavior of so many Muslims. I do not disagree with this at all. You have undoubtedly heard that the creators of South Park have received death threats from Muslims enraged over their depiction of Mohammed. Peaceful people do not make death threats. So why the mixed feelings?

Like many of you, I was taught from an early age to accept the validity of a number of myths. The god myth may have been the biggest and most destructive, but there were many related ones. Take for example the myth that religious extremists are hijacking an otherwise beneficial religion and giving it a bad name. It has only been in the last few years that I've started to recognize this as a myth, and even now, there are times when I feel uneasy about it.

I think that this is what gives me pause about PZ's description. I do not believe that all Muslims (or all Christians) are bad people. Far from it in fact. I think that most of them are good people. When it comes to Christians at least, I personally know many who I consider to be good people.

I know that this is not what PZ is saying. He is saying that the religion itself is problematic. And while I agree completely, there do seem to be some important differences between ordinary religious people and religious extremists. The problem is that I recognize that religion enables the extremists to thrive. Even the ordinary religious people provide cover to the extremists by extolling the virtues of the same dogma. And yet, knowing this does not always shake the appeal of this particular myth.

I guess the question we should be asking is this: what is the responsibility of an ordinary religious person when it comes to acts committed by religious extremists?

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