Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Religion doesn't make you crazy, but …

Speculating about motives

In the immediate aftermath of the killing rampage at Fort Hood, I find it remarkable the extent to which the public was reminded not to speculate about any religious motivation of the apparent shooter, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Even as recently as November 8, General George Casey added his voice to the many along these lines. According to an AP report, Casey has urged the country not to get caught up in speculation about the Muslim faith of the Fort Hood gunman.

It is one thing to advise us not to jump to conclusions as the President has correctly warned us about, but quiet another to suggest that we shouldn't speculate. And the same people who wish to discourage speculation of religious or political motives are more than happy to speculate about psychological stress. Indeed, there has a been a collective grasping at straws speculation about anything other than religious or political motivations.

The conservative blog Red State nailed things perfectly in their November 6 Morning Briefing with a brief titled, The Media Will Downplay His Religion, But God Help Us if His Car Had a Talk Radio Station On. [Yes, I'm one of those strange liberals who follows a few conservative blogs and news sources.]

By today, November 10, the evidence really has mounted that the killer's motivations were deeply connected to his religious identification. Exact details of his thinking may never be known, but it is becoming clear that he saw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a war against Islam. He, as a Muslim, couldn't participate in such a war on the side of the US. And thus he committed the bloody treason that he did.

He most likely was also crazy. His actions speak for themselves on that front. But when insanity has a religious dimension we all too often downplay the way that religious beliefs may have contributed to the insanity.

Religion doesn't make people crazy, but …

The world is populated by a large majority of sane religious people. Religion didn't make Hasan crazy. But I believe that religion enables people to take their craziness further than it otherwise would go.

When a woman kills her child because she believes it is possessed by the Devil she is clearly crazy. But if she weren't part of a religious community that accepted things like demonic possession she may have been more likely to question her own beliefs and sanity before acting.

When a man kills his wife and children and then himself with the hopes of sending them straight to heaven, the newspapers report on how he was a very religious man only before the facts make it clear that he was the shooter. Later, after it becomes clear that it was a murder-suicide, does the obvious clue to the killer's thinking get listed only in the very last paragraph of the newspaper reports. If he hadn't been steeped in the belief that the innocent are rewarded in the next life, would he have killed his children?

These sorts of cases rarely make national news. But they may happen very frequently but only hit local news. If anyone knows a manageable way to get national data on these kinds of infanticide or murder-suicides, please let me know.

What does get national news is something like the treason at Fort Hood and, of course, the attacks of September 11, 2001. And this reflects a different kind of religiously enabled insanity. In these cases, the perpetrator has a political cause that they feel passionately about. But on top of that, they believe that their particular political cause is also the Will of God. They have come to believe that they know the master plan of the Creator of the Universe, the Final Judge of all men. Their absolute faith in their religion gives them absolute faith in their cause. And when one is certain that advancing a cause is the will of God, then pretty much any action becomes justified or even sanctified.

As long as religions support the notion that it is possible be know the will of God they are enabling this kind of terrorism. Whether it is blowing up school children in Pakistan or murdering abortion doctors in the US, this confidence that one is acting in God's will is pernicious.

It is all very easy to say, Well my religion teaches peace and the dignity of all humans. All religions are pretty much the same in that respect. Remember most forms of most religions legitimate the idea of demonic possession, a reward in the after-life, and that it is possible to have God's will revealed to you. Those last three ideas are irrational and dangerous. And I believe that they are responsible for enabling more horror than people like to admit.

When someone does something good, the world seems quick to point out the connection between their religious beliefs and their good deed. We need to be just as willing to do that when someone does something bad. Only then will we see the extent to which religious ideas enable crazy people to act on their insanity.

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