I am openly (and perhaps notoriously) anti-theistic. It is not simply that I do not believe; I think that you shouldn’t believe either. By no means will I endorse any sort of measure to ban belief, even if I thought such a thing were possible. Nor will I sit idly while any group is selected out for unequal treatment based on their religious beliefs, even if I find those beliefs risible. I do, however, believe that religious belief, particularly the special form of ‘faith’ that is specifically instructed to be impervious to contradiction by evidence, is inherently harmful.
It has become a nearly zero-thought maxim in atheist circles to point out the sheer number and shocking depravity of acts committed in the name of religion. The theist counter-points about how evil atheistic people like Stalin were have been refuted so many times as to beggar belief that anyone would honestly use it (of course repeated refutation of bad arguments has never stopped people before, so whatever). And while we know that there are usually a multitude of reasons why people do shitty things, we are happy enough to take them at their word when they say they are doing evil things that are specifically motivated by their religious belief.
So it would be somewhat hypocritical of me not to give credit where credit is due, which is apparently in Kenya:
Muslim leaders in Kenya have agreed to form self-defence groups to protect churches following a deadly attack on Sunday. Fifteen people were killed in the raids on churches in Garissa, a town near the border with Somalia.
Kenya’s border region has been tense since it sent troops into Somalia to pursue al-Shabab Islamist militants. Adan Wachu, head of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, told the BBC the attacks were acts of terrorism.
“There are people out there who are determined to make Kenya another Nigeria,” Mr Wachu, who also chairs the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya, told the BBC Network Africa programme. “It’s not going to be allowed to have a sectarian division in this country – whoever wants to do that will of course fail.”
It is fairly clear to me that the communities involved here are actually living up to the moral standard they purport to claim for themselves – they recognize the need to safeguard the lives of others even though they do not share a theology. While the Qur’an does contain a number of passages about the killing of unbelievers, the vast majority of those passages refer to conduct in warfare. The ‘take-home’ message of the Qur’an (as far as I can tell*) is that Allah is the arbiter of punishment against unbelievers, and that in times of war it may be permissible to discriminate, but that instigating warfare and wholesale violence is against Islam.
Now absolutely nobody should confuse me with a Muslim theologian, nor should anyone confuse my generous interpretation of these surahs with the ‘authoritative’ version of Islam. Clearly there are a number of imams who think that because they are perfect slaves of Allah, they are the appropriate vessels of his divine punishment. Or something like that. Any religious scripture can be interpreted to have any number of different (and contradictory) meanings – the only ‘reality check’ is whether or not you sincerely believe in your interpretation (hence why faith untrammelled by evidence is inherently dangerous).
What I am attempting to do with this interpretation is get out ahead of the cynical complaint that defending unbelievers is ‘anti-Islamic’, or that they are being good despite their religious convictions. If they can be taken at their word (and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be – they are clearly willing to put their lives at risk), the Muslim authority in this region has made the extraordinary statement that they will not allow themselves to be divided from their fellow countrymen by something as immaterial as a disagreement over which version of YahwAlladdha they bow and scrape before.
That being said, the reason I draw attention to this story (aside from us being overdue for some good news) is that, in direct contradiction of the claims about how all religions are just different ways of answering the same question, or the blind ecumenical optimism of those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ and other pseudo-profound proclamations that are popular among American middle class (and perhaps other places as well), these kinds of stories are the exception, not the rule. A group of Muslims has made the truly impressive step of announcing that they will protect their Christian brethren… against attacks from other Muslims. We are not seeing the hand-holding-under-a-rainbow nonsense that apologists for religion like to complain that anti-theists ignore; we’re seeing a strange set of bedfellows in a conflict that is explicitly drawn along religious lines.
While my suspicion is that there are strong political motivations behind this offer of protection, and while I recognize that this one action does not necessarily balance out other problems faced by Kenya’s Christian minority [stupid me moment – Christians make up more than 80% of Kenya’s population. This story may not be nearly so mysterious as I initially portrayed it], and while I cannot bring myself to imagine that the same protection would be offered if the targeted group was a community of atheists (ecumenicism really only goes so far), I still welcome this story as an example of a positive action that transcends religious segregations and promotes a far more humanist view of how our fellow human beings should be treated.
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*This passage is a notable standout exception to the message I have articulated.