July 15, 2009

But For Religion...

Kitab al-Bulhan -- devilIn the legal arena, discussions of criminal responsibility often include statements such as, "But for the effects of alcohol, Mr. Jones never would have shot Ms. Smith" or "But for the mental illness which impaired Ms. Smith's judgment, she never would have assaulted Mr. Jones." Such considerations often help us to unravel often complicated situations and parse responsibility.

We can apply the same process to religion. When we do so, we may gain insight into the degree to which someone's religious beliefs played a role in their behavior. We may then be in a better position to determine whether religious beliefs were at least partially responsible for why someone did what they did.

Take the disturbing case of 12-year-old Khyra Ishaq in Birmingham, England. Khyra was allegedly starved to death by her mother, described as a recent convert to Islam. Did religion play a role here or was this more about bad parenting, mental illness (unrelated to religion), or other factors?

According to The Telegraph,
When the circumstances surrounding Khyra's death emerged this week, the initial debate focused on alleged neglect and child poverty. But there is now speculation that Khyra's condition may be linked to some form of "religious" process.
But for the recent conversion to Islam by Khyra's mother, would Khyra still be alive? Testimony during the trial suggests that Khyra's mother thought her daughter was possessed and may have tortured her as well.

As The Good Atheist suggested in a recent post,
It’s rather difficult to get the real story as to what happened. One thing is for sure, however; religion played a role in the neglect and torture of these children. To what extend (sic), it’s difficult to ascertain, but it’s not uncommon for extremely religious individuals to completely isolate themselves from the outside world, especially if they feel it has a corrupting influence.
It does appear that religion was relevant, but can we really say that this wouldn't have happened but for religion? We need to know more about the mental state of Khyra's mother before we can answer that. Still, it is a question worth asking in this and many other cases.