Ignorance is the Answer

Following the turnaround by Brandeis on honoring Ayaan Hirsi Ali, further incidents in the last few weeks have raised questions about the complex web connecting religion, identity, and violence. Two weeks ago, the interfaith advisory panel for a soon-to-open 9/11 museum in New York objected to an approximately seven minute film that they say draws strong parallels between the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks and other Muslims. In a telling statement, the sole imam on the panel who resigned in protest claimed that Muslims would be offended and “unsophisticated” patrons would be unable to make a distinction between the average Muslim and an Al-Quaeda terrorist. (There’s an insightful take on the fear of Islamophobia in connection to Ali’s case and the 9/11 museum here.)

I’ve tried to adopt a charitable position regarding the reservations of this interfaith panel. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are those who work to make strong connections between religion and violence, and there are also those who work to dissolve all such connections on a case-by-case basis. I think it fair to acknowledge that religion is not the sole cause of violence, nor are religion and violence exclusive spheres. So the goal in these situations is to accurately represent what the nature of the connection between religion and violence is (and not merely protect one’s own identity).

One of the issues at hand is how much to cater to the ignorance or “unsophisticat[ion]” of the average person. This is difficult to determine without begging the very question at hand. Certainly if it were the case that Islam inevitably led to physical violence and destruction, it would not be misleading to say as much. On the other hand, if it was the case that we could prove by any acceptable measure that religion did not or could not play a role in physical violence, it would be misleading to make such a connection. But I’ve just suggested that neither of these is actually the case, so it is no easy thing to determine how strongly to posit the connection. There is something ironic, however, about nuancing the connection of religion to violence out of fear of violence.

Perhaps, then, it is ignorance that is really at issue here. After all, proponents of a religious tradition that denounce those who commit violence in the name of their tradition usually argue that those “extremists” have misunderstood or misrepresented the “truth” of said tradition. I understand the desire for the peaceful threads within a religious tradition—or those relatively insulated from the effects of religious violence, as in much of the West—to denounce the violent threads as wrong or at best misguided. There are only two choices that I can see in adopting that paradigm, however. One would be to make an argument using the evidence of the tradition that said religion is truly aggressive or truly peaceful. These arguments have been raging for centuries, and while they matter greatly to those committed to the traditions, they are of little value to those outside the tradition because they appeal to a body of evidence that is substantiated in the first place by faith. History, textual, and cultural traditions all point to a spectrum of peace and violence within each religious tradition.

The other possibility for those who wish to denounce violence is to do so based on a value external to religious belief, such as that violence is wrong because it fails the test of reciprocity—you wouldn’t want it done to you—or that the prohibition of physical violence is the precondition of human social interaction. This defense, though, obviously calls into question the validity of the religious tradition as a source of fundamental value if it is necessary to incorporate values outside of religious tradition to regulate it.

I am quite obviously in the latter camp, arguing that the extremes of faith can only be limited from outside religious tradition. Consequently, I am fully willing to acknowledge, though it may be taboo to suggest, that ignorance, not unsubtantiated religious belief, is a greater point of leverage to make societal change. In other words, I’d be happy to argue that education—critical inquiry into how the world functions and the diversity of positions within it—would make a more substantial impact than directly attempting to disabuse folks of their religious belief. (It is quite clear that extremist groups also fully understand the threat that education poses to religious belief, as evidenced most recently by the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram.)

The question this raises for me is whether the more peaceful and less coercive groups within religious tradition are so because education provided them with a more accurate or truer interpretation of their own religious beliefs, or if education allows folks to “outsource” the evidential weight that religion is required to bear to make sense of the world. If the former is true, there is a long road ahead to determine just what historical contingencies account for the depth of past mistakes, and what sort of opaque supernatural plan is at work, having forced humanity to crawl around in the dark and destroy each other in ignorance for most of human existence. Further, how is it possible to find a way forward, to “prove” the correct interpretation of religious belief so that we can limit antisocial and violent acts as effectively as possible?

If the latter is true, if education or knowledge allows one to unknowingly shift the existential burden from resting solely or ultimately on religious tradition to being shared among social, biological, psychological, political, and economic factors, then we—those who are comparatively privileged in the aforementioned areas—should take a thorough assessment of the weight each of these factors bear.

I’ve written before about how, when I was a Christian, my church caught onto a sort of epistemological breakthrough. Evangelical trends from the places where Christianity was and is spreading (in the South) suggested that one could be more effective in spreading the Gospel if, rather than coming right out and telling people they need Jesus, we attempted to meet people’s “felt needs.” Coercion is a played-out model in a free society, and just being really nice wasn’t getting the job done, but if a subject says that what they really need is a meal, or their roof fixed, or a place to meet friends, and the evangelist addresses that problem, the subject is more receptive to supernatural claims. Rather than consider that what people actually need is some help with their very practical problems, we concluded that their practical problems were barriers that we had to get out of the way so that we could give them what they really needed: Jesus.

We told them the reason we helped is that we had Jesus’ love in our hearts. Don’t you want to be part of a group that has it all figured out? If I had been forced to assess my own situation when I was a young Christian, I would have thought, “Well, yes I’ve never really wanted for any of the basics in life such as food, clothing, water, shelter, safety, etc. Yes I’ve always had a good support network. Yes I’ve always been economically well-off, comparatively. Yes, I’ve received a full twelve years of primary and secondary education and had ample opportunity to receive higher education. Yes I’m culturally privileged from the perspectives of race, sex, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and body image, among others. But the reason I am who I am is because I’m a Christian.” Is that enlightenment or is that ignorance?

I can look back now and say at least that the relative security I had in all of those areas allowed me the freedom to distribute the existential weight of those factors as I saw fit with very little consequence, with little chance of my thinking being challenged. Then I looked at those with few or none of those privileges and, completely devoid of context, prescribed the same logic. It is indeed true that religion can be peaceful, can be motivational, can be life-changing. But it is intellectually dishonest to assign the existential weight to a category that cannot be tested, but must be accepted on faith. And because it cannot be verified in the world, it is systemically, symbolically, and even often physically violent, to impose its order. Thus, I am perfectly willing to agree that ignorance is the real culprit in religious violence, but this does not bode well for those maintain the purity of religion from all acts of violence.

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