Privilege, Oppression, but above all, Nonviolence

I had an interesting conversation with my students today about social systems of privilege and oppression in the context of the Baltimore riots that are taking place right now. (For other articles about the riots, see here and here). We’re at the end of a class on ethics, social systems, and civics, and the current events are an opportunity to apply the concepts we have been discussing all semester.

What I learned from today’s conversation is that we can be educated about privilege and oppression and still not apply it to real situations because when assessing current events, we default to the mantras of the very social systems that need critique. It’s worse than denying that social structures exist, because in this case one admits their existence, but never grounds them in any actual occurrence. Sure, racism is a part of our social structure, the thinking goes, but Trayvon Martin? Michael Brown? Eric Garner? or Freddie Gray? These were all about something else, anything else than social structures that consistently support our devaluation of their lives.

I learned that we value property, and we value nonviolence. For some reason, when property is destroyed, all bets are off. The line of thinking goes something like this. “Yeah, it’s a terrible thing that a guy died from his treatment in police custody, but you can’t destroy your own city! That affects other people!” There is a conditioning that goes on when we see physical structures destroyed that we associate with the height of anarchy. (Except in movies—then we love to see stuff blow up.) For some reason when people are destroyed in the same way, it doesn’t affect us similarly. So some peoples’ stuff is more important than some peoples’ lives. We ought to be honest about this.

Even more interesting is the idea of nonviolence. It came up multiple times in our class conversation that violence ultimately doesn’t solve anything. Don’t these looters know they are sabotaging themselves by becoming violent? Why don’t they look at MLK or Gandhi and imitate their approaches? Set aside the fact that a casual watcher of Selma can see that successful actions were so because they provoked violent retaliation. We’re not really talking about an ethical ban on violence anyway. We’re talking about violence when it applies to the average citizen. Police violence, the violence of the state? These are not critiqued in the same way. If I ask my students, “Do you think it is right that a young man dies in police custody, likely because of his rough treatment at the hands of police?”, they would say, “No, but…”

It’s not simply no, it’s “No, but.” And it’s with that qualifier I realize that all abstract talk about systems of privilege and oppression is of little value unless you can apply it to events that are taking place. “It’s terrible that a guy died, but we can’t tolerate riots!” It would be a huge step forward if we could just turn the sentence around. “It’s terrible that this violence and rioting took place, but we can’t tolerate police brutality!” Why can’t we have that conversation instead of the one we are having?

People express incredulity at the fact that rioters are using violence. “Don’t they know that it undercuts their aims?” But why? Why is it that violence expressed by the average citizen, is automatically thought to be counterproductive when state violence, whether military violence abroad or police violence at home, is automatically assumed to be at worst necessary, and at best productive? This presumption colors the way we respond to these incidents, and is exactly the reason that some act out in violence in the first place.

“Don’t people know that they’re actually delaying justice for the victim by distracting people from solving the case?” What if violence, instead of being an ignorant explosion, was conceived as a response to justice delayed? A belief that the current police and justice system will prevail on the side of right requires a certain amount of trust in the system. Of course I trust the system. It has in general done right by me. But what if the system betrayed my trust on a regular basis by treating me or those in my community unfairly? Would I be wise to continue to trust in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Or would I insane? Of course I gamble on the justice of the system, because historically my bets have paid off. But at some point it would become stupid to do so if it was never in my interest.

It takes significant faith to continue to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary, and this is often why religion is a tool of the oppressor against the oppressed. But how can we blame lack of education when people respond with violence? Education shows that nonviolence, when met with violence, can win sympathy to a cause. It also shows that violence is the foundation for every significant civilization in history, and it is the most brazen of hypocrisies to denounce it as if we don’t think it’s a viable tool to upset the status quo.

You could read this as an apology for violence, which it’s not intended to be. But you can’t hide behind education if you immediately condemn violence without being to recognize legitimate, long-endured oppression. Education doesn’t teach you to abhor violence. It teaches you to be able read the situations around you without resorting to a black and white binary to define your world.


Religion and the Mafia? Open questions about a (seemingly) fruitless argument

For a few days I resisted commenting about the latest round of statements from Bill Maher and Sam Harris and responses from Reza Aslan—and more recently Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof on Real Time—over the subject of Islam. [Maher also did a debrief here.] Part of me thinks that any response to the debate may actually deepen the problem it is purportedly trying to solve.

There are two points, however, that I think are important to note.

The first is that we should be attuned to the rhetoric involved. Rhetoric does not mean untruth. It is involved to an extent in most of our speech and particularly when we are trying to sway others. We want to consider the rhetoric—what facts are chosen and what facts are left unsaid, what arguments are used—in conjunction with the content of the argument. None presents a complete version of the issue. This is not a requirement, but it should be clearly understood.

  • Maher—who is both a comedian and an atheist—argues that the religion Islam, more than Christianity, is responsible for widespread violence and laws that violate the core principles of Western liberalism.
  • Aslan—a scholar currently doing a good job positioning himself as an authority on religion—responds that Maher makes such statements because he’s ignorant about the complexity of religion…and the violence Maher speaks of is not a religious problem, but a political/social/cultural/geographical problem.
  • Affleck—an actor promoting a movie who also (probably) donates to charitable causes throughout the world—says Maher’s statements are racist. Some people are good, some people are bad, and we should condemn the bad and not lump the good in with them.
  • Kristof—a reporter and activist who has emphasized the strong links between the oppression of women and religion—says Islam plays a significant role in justifying oppression, but there are also many Muslims doing great things in the world, even fighting against extremism within their own traditions.

Despite what Aslan (and other scholars) contends, I don’t think one needs significant or specialized knowledge to speak to this issue. In other words, one doesn’t need to be a scholar of religion to say something here. I think all of the people involved meet the requirement of engaged citizens.

The second and more important point is really a question. What is the desired result?

What do Maher and Harris think would be the best possible outcome regarding Islam (and then probably religion in general)? It isn’t to coerce—compel by force—people to give up religion. Maher says as much, and it would violate the core principles of a liberal, just society he says he values. What Maher and Harris are implying is that no individual, group, institution, or country should be able to commit violence or justify oppression through religion. Argue, debate, and try to convince—but don’t coerce.

If their goal is as I describe it above, the rhetorical approach Maher uses is less than ideal. He makes a comparative claim that Islam is worse than other traditions in terms of its oppression of women. He bases his argument on certain facts, and Aslan and others respond with different facts. I see little productive value in the debate on this level, even if it were true, because neither side knows whether more people are free or oppressed under Islam. More importantly, neither side really thinks that is the point. If one side or the other could successfully prove that one more person is oppressed by Islam than free, or vice versa, would that end the debate over the benefit and harm of religion? Doubtful. It’s more than that.

Maher’s approach is not wholly ineffective, because it certainly promotes conversation, and Maher seems to want to shock people into awareness of his argument. But it (obviously) alienates quite a few people, and arguably the very people who could exert the most influence for change.

With that said, shouldn’t a reasonable person agree with the principle that religion should coerce no one? If there are those who disagree with this idea—or simply prefer to ignore it because they are not being coerced—shouldn’t that, as much as to what extent Maher’s and Harris’s claims are true or false, be a topic of discussion? I think people should be just as angry at Christianity because states like Idaho have laws that protect prayer as an alternative to medical treatment and as a result allows parents to let their children die from Type 1 Diabetes and food poisoning. Maher contends we shouldn’t because it doesn’t affect as many people. The point, however, is the same. At what level of harm should we shift our focus from isolated individuals to traditions? Do we not ignore the issue by arguing over “correct” interpretations of religious doctrine and texts?

It seems that one underlying fear of those who react negatively to Maher’s claims is a fear of the ignorance of the populace. This is a legitimate fear, which recognizes many people are unable or unwilling to think critically and will use the condemnation of a tradition’s dogma as a legitimation for their own fearful violence and bigotry. This should be recognized and dealt with, but ignorance cannot serve as an excuse for silence.

But what if we come at the question from the other side? What of the objections of Aslan, Affleck, and others?

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that most people who identify with a religious tradition are “good” people by (non-religious) societal standards. That observation is at the core of most objections to criticisms of religion.

Does the fact that religious people can be good negate the argument against oppression and bigotry in religious traditions? Does the good outweigh the bad, and are we measuring again by sheer numbers? If so, this would also be a more productive point around which to center the debate, because it would indicate that the presence of people who are ‘good’ by broad social standards protects religion from social critique. In one popular version of this argument put forth by the Dalai Lama, Karen Armstrong, and other, religion itself becomes “that which promotes good.”

If though, as reasonable people would agree, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, et al. have been the impetus for at least some oppression and bigotry throughout history and in the present, what then? Is it possible for us to sincerely investigate the extent of that role? Is it an all-or-nothing proposition?

But the biggest question, I think, is the relationship between religion and other forms of privilege. If other cultural elements of privilege and oppression are inextricably intertwined with questions of religion, particularly when religion manifests in its most extreme forms, what does that mean? Harris claims that the element of religion is a more primary motivation for oppression than economic or political factors, but his claim is debatable, particularly because religion always manifests strongly in times of crisis. Alternately, other scholars have claimed that religion is a tool (inappropriately) used to express cultural frustration. If religion manifests violently when it is accompanied by cultural deprivation, how does it manifest in areas of relative cultural privilege? What is cultural influence of a religious tradition if it is correlated with violence among oppressed peoples and “peace” among privileged peoples?

If we are to make a serious claim that other factors aside from religion are primarily responsible for religious violencewe have to to consider the possibility that other factors aside from religion are primarily responsible for religious peace, do we not? What if this is true?

Rather than draw any immediate conclusions, I’d like to leave these questions open. I welcome any thoughts.


Removing the “New” from Religion and Atheism

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 11.38.41 AMDuring the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Lawrence Krauss, who is a physicist and relative newcomer to the New Atheism camp, debated Peter Rollins, who has become known as a leading thinker in Emerging or postmodern Christianity. Their debate was billed as “New Atheism” versus “New Religion,” although neither man sat well with the title his side had been given.

I have seen Krauss in other debates, particularly in Unbelieversthe recently released movie featuring him and Richard Dawkins arguing with a host of religious conservatives, primarily Christian and Muslim. What I found amusing in this particular debate, however, is that Krauss didn’t quite know what to do with Rollins. They had too much common ground. Rollins argued three things about New Atheism. First, he claimed that it can and has become for many an identity source just like religion, meaning that it is not functionally different from the religious traditions it decries. Second, he suggested that the direct attacks against fundamentalism serve to strengthen rather than weaken it. Lastly, he proposed that atheism does not have the “capital” to serve as a viable alternative to religion.

In terms of its function, it is undeniably true that atheism can become as much of an unthinking identity as religious tradition, but it should be unpacked a little bit. Rollins argues his case by suggesting that fundamentalism is not the problem, but the solution to a problem. It is this deeper problem that can be seen in fundamentalism and atheism alike, although I would add that the historical and fantastical accretions of religion make it a more hospitable location for dogmatism than atheism. In any case, while Rollins doesn’t specify what the deeper problem is, it can obviously take many forms in economic or social deprivation (or a defense for economic and social privilege), but almost always in a skewed sense of identity that needs reconciliation. I have spoken with people for whom atheism is clearly an identity, having shifted from a negation of religious belief to a positive affirmation of an absence of religion as a dogmatic stance.

In this case, it would be difficult not to agree with those Christians and Muslims who argue that New Atheism, or simply atheism, has developed into a position akin in many ways to religious tradition, which means that it can become unthinking. Krauss is much less able to recognize this position than is Rollins, because Krauss appears to be a clear and logical thinker. He doesn’t and doesn’t need to bank on an atheist identity. Consequently, while he acknowledged that atheism for some can become a positive identity, something more than “not-skiing” as a sport, he doesn’t understand it as a common, albeit illogical, approach. It is ridiculous to Krauss that an intellectual stance or what amounts to subjecting religious wisdom to scientific scrutiny could become a dogmatic stance, because it is clear that it shouldn’t. Indeed, it violates the principles of a scientific approach to form a dogmatic stance about it. In fact, it’s logically impossible to establish a dogma around a fundamental openness to new evidence. However, it is entirely possible to rest on such a stance based on what recent scientific thinkers have said about religion, namely that it is patently false. Without possessing the ability or will to question the truth of particular situations, one can easily and freely adopt the stance that all religion is false and religious folks are imbeciles, just as many religious folk are convinced that atheists are willfully ignoring God or are influenced by the devil.

Rollins, on the other hand, understands the paradox that even a belief in nothing, or the negation of belief in something, can become itself something. In a slightly different form, this has been one of the primary points of his critique of Christianity. According to Rollins, most Christians already know that the claims they make are untrue on some level. Consequently, when they are criticized from the outside for the ridiculousness of their claims about prayer or God’s will, etc., Rollins recognizes that, contrary to curing them of their illogic, it will often drive folks further into their irreconcilable positions. As a recent example, the Friendly Atheist was incredulous that the missionary doctor who received treatment for Ebola from an experimental drug spent most of his time in his first speech on release giving thanks to God for saving him rather than the drug and the doctors who nursed him back to health. However, the doctor no doubt didn’t refuse the experimental drug when offered so that God could do the work of healing. He simply holds two contradictory positions: one, that God healed him; and two, that modern medicine saved him. The first position makes no sense unless God likes the two white missionaries more than all those who have died from Ebola in the most recent outbreak. The second position makes enormously more sense: the missionaries received proper medical care and lived, others did not and died. Paul Farmer talks about this from a practical perspective in a recent interview on Democracy Now.

To put it another way, religious believers cannot fully accept the world scientifically until they address its incompatibility with their belief, but the only way to address the fallacy of their belief would be to fully adopt an open and questioning stance, a scientific stance. What many atheists are unwilling to admit is that this is much more than an intellectual shift. It carries tremendous social and psychological baggage, and it is predicated on sufficient cultural capital, on social, political, and/or economic stability. Rollins thus realizes, I believe, that directly exposing the contradictions of particularly conservative religion is inefficient at best, which was revealed by his third point against New Atheism, that it lacks the cultural capital to provide religious folks with an alternative. This point, too, is fundamentally inconceivable to Krauss and the like, who cannot grasp that the lies we tell ourselves rival the power of truths about the universe, even when the latter are demonstrably true and the former are not.

In terms of a paradigm shift, then, Rollins’ position is perhaps more viable. It is true that he has an economic interest in maintaining ambiguous ties with Christianity because liberal or postmodern Christians are primarily the folks that come to hear him. To the outsider, of which Krauss provided a quintessential example in this debate, Rollins’ circumlocutions seem unintelligible. His is the language of the existentialist, the language of deconstruction, but it is also storytelling, narratives that Christians are familiar with. If he could succeed in recasting Christianity not around dogmatic principles about the world and the afterlife, but around breaking down those principles and questioning our dogmatic assumptions about the world, the fundamental and unthinking ways that religion allows folks to operate in would be shifted. Religion would not provide a safe haven for rigid belief and unthinking behavior. It is certainly not to say that it would eliminate it. The very fact that atheism can provide that same haven for unthinking should be an indication that institutionalization, not the content of an institution, is all that suffices to become dogmatic.


They’re Right. The Debate Really is About Religion.

About 30 miles from where I live, I drove past a sign informing me there’s a Hobby Lobby coming to my neighborhood soon. And just when I was getting ready to put it in the back of my mind, now that the initial fury has died down. I can do that, of course, because it doesn’t directly affect me. (You can’t always tell that someone is directly affected by a case just because they have strong views on it, but a sure fire way to tell someone has no interest is the comment, “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.”) So I’ve been thinking more about the question of religious influence this week.

I’ve also been reading a book called How Good People Make Tough Choices for potential use in the classroom. In one section the author, Rushworth Kidder, uses the public debate over abortion to make the case that each side is closer to the other than it thinks. He contends that the debate here, as in many other cases, is not really over values but over definitions, particularly over the question of when life begins. He asks us to imagine a debate between articulate and thoughtful folks on either extreme of the debate. Certainly they both value life. Neither side supports murder, both value the concept of freedom of choice, both value children, and neither side thinks disposing of unwanted children is an acceptable societal practice. Both also value women and their choice, at least as a matter of principle. Both think that law should be followed and unjust laws should be changed. Most on both sides, he thinks, probably even agree that religion does and should play a role.

As mentioned, this all points to the idea that this debate is not really over values. Life for one side begins at conception, which is fixed at some (early) indeterminate point, and for the other at gestation, which is also fixed at a (later) indeterminate point. The debate is also unlikely to be decide on those grounds because of the indeterminacy of the evidence, just as with our difficulty of deciding exactly when someone is dead.

He almost won me over. But then he continues, “if the pro-life side were suddenly convinced that life had not yet begun by this or that week, they would have no more difficulty allowing the woman an abortion at that time than they would in letting her decide to clip her nails, since they feel strongly about individual choice” (98). Kidder is absolutely right about the notion that there is much more common ground among all parties than is typically granted in the media.  And he is also right that if we grant pro-life advocates were truly convinced—hypothetically, since he’s not advocating one side or the other—then they would have no issue with terminating pregnancy at that stage. The likelihood against that happening, however, is astonishingly high.

The issue that Hobby Lobby is the latest iteration of is not really about abortion, or women’s rights, but religion. I have to agree with advocates of “religious freedom” on this point, and the debate would certainly be more focused if all parties focused on religion as the beginning and end of the debate. Maybe initially it was about the actual content of the debate, but that has long since ceased to be the case.

Here’s where this begins to apply to Hobby Lobby. It is increasingly clear that many of the drugs the owners of Hobby Lobby disagree with do not actually cause abortions, and thereby do not terminate life, but that has not, as of yet, changed many minds on the side of the defense. (Lest one thinks the weight of the evidence only needs to settle in a little more, one only needs to think of human impact on the global climate, or evolution, about which there is overwhelming evidence, and yet disagreement falling uncoincidentally along similar lines.) Evidence is not a clear determinant of the case.

Let us just say however, that sufficient and justifiable ambiguity remains for the owners of Hobby Lobby not to change their minds yet. And let us say that we want to protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion as well as their sex, race, class, body type, gender, ability, etc. And let us say that we want to allow as much latitude as possible to exercise freedom within those identity categories or others. These are all good things. How do we maneuver through this ethically?

The concept of discrimination may provide a way forward. What makes discrimination problematic, what makes it something that we societally seek protection from, is that it is action based upon an irrational judgment (prejudice); in other words, a judgement that is irrelevant to the case at hand. When this discrimination is sustained, it becomes institutionalized as oppression, and that oppression is masked as cultural norms, nature, “the way of things,” and as such hides its arbitrary heart. But we have gradually seen through (although certainly not eliminated) such legitimacy in the past and begun to expose it for the façade it is.

So if you want, don’t call it discrimination. Call it irrational judgment. Either way, it results in an ethical failure. For this reason we should not limit the access to guns on the basis of race. We also should not limit the access to cultural and artistic enrichment on the basis of socio-economic class. We should not limit the access to land to build a church (or a mosque) on the basis of religion. And we also should not limit access to contraceptives or birth control on the basis of sex. All of these forms of discrimination have to an extent been institutionalized based upon arbitrary beliefs, and their insidiousness lies in their power to coerce the implausible scenario they portray into existence.

What Kidder fails to recognize, then, is the uniqueness of religion in its ability not just to supplement, but to replace ethics. Earlier he notes, “Worship and faith, combined with charity and mercy, are powerful contributors to the health and well-being of our communities.” This has indeed been true, but the opposite is also true, that religion is a powerful contributor to the sickness and destruction of well-being of communties. If and when this is combined with the notion that there are millions of folks that somehow have similar human values irrespective of religion, one is more inclined to think that ethics and religion are not the same, and that there are broader, more inclusive, bases upon which to judge and protect the individuals in our communities. Although we protect religious freedom, although we understand the depth of its historical tradition and its far-reaching influence in America, we cannot allow religion—again, in an irrational relation to the facts at hand—to be used as a means to circumscribe the rights of certain individuals, against their will, when we have established them as rights of citizenship.

To be clear, the point is not to reverse some dangerous trend toward increasing religious discrimination in America, at least in the long view. Discrimination based on religious (Protestant Christian) belief has always been a part of the American heritage. Neither is the point to eliminate religion of any sort from society as a whole, at least by force. That too would be immoral. The point is to continue progressing toward limiting religious privilege in the public sphere. One way to do that is to make clear the distinction between religion and moral/ethical value.

There can be broad overlaps between ethics and religion, but they are not synonymous. In response to Socrates’ question to Euthyphro, “It is loved by the gods because it is pious,” and not the other way around. Where that leaves ethics and how ethics can be valuable if not rooted in the supernatural is a question that keeps many holding to a causal connection between the two, usually because it is how they were first encountered. That there is no necessary connection between religion and ethics is important because it removes the justification of a distinctive religious identity to trump or receive preferential treatment, or exceptions, over any other social identity in the public sphere.

The wild card in this scenario is Christians who disagree with the position of Hobby Lobby’s ownership. These Christians are key stakeholders in the drive to separate “good” religion from “conservative” religion in order to protect their beliefs. Insofar as religion and state remain separate, this position may be defensible. When the line becomes blurred, though, the attempt to dismiss the issue as a case of bad religion or about something else besides religion obscures bigger problems, including the attempt to conflate ethics and religion and the irrational basis of judgment, at least in this case. What is one to do, who both identifies as Christian and believes that corporations should not be able to limit the access of their employees to contraception and birth control on religious grounds? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I’m convinced that it is these folks who will increasingly be crucial in debates over religion in America and globally.


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.