The Modern Survival Guide #64
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. One of my views is that religious persecution is bad, and this might get me in trouble with some readers, because I include all religious persecution in that statement — not just persecution of your religion. And that’s an issue because it applies to everyone; at some point every single major religion on this planet has persecuted one of the others. Humans are fun like that.
One might have hoped, fifty years ago, that we would be past this stage by 2019. One would have been very disappointed. This is still a survival issue if you’re religious, since it means that someone might mistreat you. If you’re not religious it’s even more of a survival issue, given that religions the world over have a long, dark history of burning atheists, apostates, and agnostics at the stake.
So let’s talk definitions for a moment, because I don’t want people getting the wrong idea:
Religious Persecution: the systematic mistreatment of individuals or groups due to their religious beliefs or lack thereof.
Religious persecution is simply bad; for you, for society, and for the world. Persecution of almost any sort is pernicious, and religious persecution can get really nasty for at least five big reasons: it’s highly irrational, it promotes needless conflict, it creates oppressive conditions, it generates cycles of persecution, and it tends to lead to xenophobia and racism.
Religious Persecution is Highly Irrational
I have previously written about how to deal with the fact that there are multiple religions in the modern world, and one of the key points of that argument is that religion is a game of castles in the sky. Every faith has its miracles; every faith has its theological and mundane “proofs.” But there’s no way to scientifically prove that one religion is correct, and it is therefore irrational for one religion to claim superiority.¹
Consequently, arguing that one religion is superior and therefore it is acceptable to mistreat members of a different religion solely because of their religious choice is, at best, highly illogical. Neither of you can prove your case. It’s literally arguing about whose imaginary friend is better.² Adults should not argue about such things, educated people should know better, and no moral person should buy into the notion of religious persecution. We do not live in the Dark Ages.
Religious Persecution Promotes Needless Conflict
Religious persecution leads to conflict as an inevitable consequence. Either the person doing the persecuting will engage in violence, or the person being persecuted will rebel against their tormentor. It’s simply human nature, not to mention historically verified behavior.
Let’s talk about conflict for a moment. There are justifiable reasons to engage in conflict with another human being — defending oneself from hostile attacks, protecting others, acquiring survival resources, etc. — but because religious persecution is irrational, religion should not feature on that list.
This is because religion, strictly speaking, deals with the hereafter, and while people sometimes use religion as an excuse for doing things in the here-and-now, that excuse is never a justification for an assault on an entire religion.
Let’s break this down: a belief structure is rarely justification for physical attack. We have already accepted this as a society. For example, we are all more or less in agreement that we should not assault people in the street for believing socialist, or capitalist, or communist economic philosophies. We can disagree, but disagreement isn’t a basis for conflict, even when the philosophy in question advocates some dodgy things, because we’re supposed to live in a society that values discourse, not violence, and judges based on actions, not beliefs.
Consequently assaulting someone for belief flies in the face of all of our social norms for modern, civilized conduct. There are simply too many belief structures out there to start a fight every time someone adopts one of them — we are and should be judged more for our actions than for our thoughts, and that includes the judgement to engage in conflict. Given that religion is all about belief, we are never justified for perpetrating a conflict with someone based on their religion.³
Religious Persecution Generates Oppression
Similar to the previous point, religious persecution is bad because it generates unjustified oppression, and that sort of thing is generally bad for societies. When members of particular religions are singled out for mistreatment, they are almost inevitably affected in other areas of their lives. They might find it difficult to open or run a business, for example, or find their freedom of speech restricted. They might find swastikas spray-painted on their mosque doors, or their temple defiled, or their churches burned down.
Oppression leads to all sorts of nasty social repercussions. In the short term, it obviously leads to a decreased quality of life for the people being oppressed, which can cause social and population disruption as people flee the area. It can cause a corresponding economic disruption, since some of the people fleeing the area will represent a portion of the business community, and the rest will be taxpayers, members of the workforce, and consumers. This is non-ideal for any capitalist society; the whole idea is to have a lot of people buying things.
And of course there’s the human, moral aspect. Oppression creates fear and leads to tragedy. Oppression generates resentment and leads to anger. Oppression bankrolls reprisals, and leads to unrest and revolution. These are all bad things, and this brings us to our next point.
Religious Persecution Generates a Cycle of Persecution
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Violence begets revenge, oppression begets revolt, persecution begets reprisals. And the thing is, with personal issues that’s a time-limited problem — no matter what issues I have with my neighbors, eventually we’ll both die and that problem will probably be resolved with our passing. This does not happen with religions. Religions are not limited by lifespans.
Religious power waxes and wanes over time. Sometimes religions are supported by nations, sometimes not. Sometimes religions are supported by huge segments of a population, sometimes not. Sometimes religions are in a position to persecute other religions… and then, maybe in a few dozen years or a couple of centuries, they’re on the other end of the stick and their former targets have the opportunity to hit back. Shift forward another few dozen years, and maybe the first group is back in power and ready for some revenge of their own.
Religious persecution does nothing less than generate the start of such a cycle, because unless the religion is stamped out completely, its followers will simply retrench, rearm, and wait until the shoe is on the other foot. We see this in the modern Middle East, and in India and Pakistan; in ancient Roman history; and in the legacy of events like the Reconquista.
Cycles of persecution like this are bad. They lead to the demonization of the opposing side, and open the door to pogroms, lynchings, torture, even genocide. This is a serious problem, given that religious groups have a track record of not even blinking at human rights violations because, after all, in these types of situations it’s God’s will that they purge the unbelievers. This situation is one to be avoided.
Religious Persecution Begets Xenophobia and Racism
None of this is new stuff; we’ve seen religious persecution for as long as there’s been a concept of religion. That has caused a certain amount of population movement over time. Fast forward to the modern age, and quite a lot of religions populations live segregated lives from their differently-religious neighbors. This sets the stage for xenophobia and racism, particularly when both sides already feel like they have just cause to distrust the other.
It’s only a short series of steps from “That man who killed your father is Christian!” to “All Christians are bloodthirsty maniacs who want to destroy our way of life!” to “Those bloodthirsty Christian maniacs who want to destroy our way of life are all white! White people want to destroy our way of life!” This is a path to horror that many peoples have walked many times in many different ways over the centuries.
Neither xenophobia nor racism are ever good things.
How to Stop Religious Persecution
Religious persecution fundamentally rests on blind faith, pride, and cruelty. Those are its seeds; it requires someone who believes without thought, is so entrenched in that belief that they cannot tolerate another viewpoint, and is prepared to hurt another human being in order to enforce their viewpoint. You have to have those qualities before you can really get a good inquisition going, but once it starts it tends to be self-perpetuating for a while.⁴
Therefore preventing religious persecution is a matter of rationality, humility, and human decency. We have to be cognizant of the flaws in our own belief structures, accept that our religious beliefs ought not to require others to belief the same way, and try to remember that cruelty is a vice, not a virtue.
This all begins in education. Teaching children that the world is a big place, informing them that there are many belief systems, and instilling good qualities in them is step one in avoiding long-term religious persecution. As long as educational systems remain neutral in their attitudes towards religion, children will avoid formal reinforcement of whatever biases they may pick up at home. Accordingly, it behooves us all to pay attention to our educational system, and to keep it relatively secular.
As an adult, we have an obligation in the modern world to continue our educations. To learn things we weren’t taught in school, to establish sources of authoritative and trustworthy knowledge, to broaden our horizons. Education doesn’t stop when we leave school — rather, if we’re lucky, it’s just getting started. This is especially true in matters of religion.
The next step is in government. We, as the voting public, have a responsibility to avoid electing people who look like they might want to push religious policies. Remember — instilling any overtly religious policy is by definition an act of persecution toward any religion not included in that policy. It is elevating one religion over another with the full power and force-backed authority of the state. Our founders saw the flaw in that plan, and this is why we have the 1st Amendment. But we can only bring up the 1st Amendment in court after a law has been passed and a lawsuit has been filed to challenge its Constitutionality; it cannot be done as a formal preventive measure under our current system. That means we need to address that issue at the source — the elected officials — in order to properly mitigate the risk.
The final step is in being decent human beings. And this is a personal choice; no education, no government mandate will ever be able to make us be good people. We have to choose, every day, to do good things. As long as enough of us in society are making the choice to adopt reasonably inclusive attitudes towards religions not our own, we are in a much better place in terms of avoiding religious persecution.
So that’s on us. When we see an example of a religious person behaving badly, we have to rationally evaluate that person as a bad actor — to acknowledge that this doesn’t mean their religion is evil, it just means they are not being a good person.
Because here’s the thing — every single religion on this planet has some passage or another in its Holy Book that someone, somewhere can use as a justification in an argument that the religion is evil. Every. Single. One. It’s worth remembering that Holy Books were all written by people, often in radically different cultures and times. They are not going to line up perfectly with modern sensibilities, and that’s all there is to it.
My advice, for what it’s worth, is to look to the individuals, not to the Books. Look to the modern doctrines, not the mandates of the past. Examine the modern organizations, not the Popes and Caliphates of the ancient world. When we judge a religious person, put them in context. And then we can hopefully avoid tarring vast groups with a very small brush.
¹The problem is that you’re dealing with a test of a supremely powerful being, by default. That means that anytime your test doesn’t turn up a proof of God, or turns up the “wrong” proof of God, all a believer has to say is “God didn’t want to be found.” And they would be logically correct; any supreme being would be perfectly capable of hiding from mortals if it possessed even one or two of the “omni” qualities we normally associated with God (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence).
The only way to prove a religion correct would be for God Itself to physically manifest as a deific creature, not a mortal (for the Christians who will argue it was Jesus), appear in a bunch of major population centers, display Its power, and then lay down the law on TV. And even that would only work for a few hundred years before another round of PR was needed for a new generation. Anything less is too easy to ignore or misinterpret, and It should damn well know that.
²I apologize if that sounds condescending, but look, even if God exists, if It is not involved in the kind of PR campaign described in footnote 1, then whatever your idea of It is, that idea would be almost necessarily flawed. Humans are not omniscient and are subject to pressures of preferential belief and prejudice. If It exists, God is almost certainly not a bearded white man in a robe, for example.
³This is a point that many religious extremists have trouble with — they will claim that they are being persecuted for their religion when a society prevents them from engaging in child marriage, or discriminating against gay people, or female circumcision, or suicide bombing. No. That is not persecution of religion, because it is a restriction on action, not belief. You can believe whatever you like. But you act within a rule set. Restriction on worship, on the other hand, is religious persecution — as long as the worship does not involve socially proscribed actions. Clear? Maybe not, but this stuff doesn’t get to be simple. We have to muddle through as best we can.
⁴It’s very easy for those who perpetrate religious persecution to frame resistance to their actions as yet another example of the perfidy of the other religion, or oppression of their own religion, and thereby increase their own support base. Religious conservatives in the US have been perfecting this tactic for years.