Honorable mention: Graduate student college essay contest (One) by Samuel David Capps

An explosive mix: Religion and violence

FFRF awarded Samuel $200.

By Samuel David Capps

A blast inside a warehouse causes it to burn to the ground and kills five workers inside. An investigation reveals an arsonist started a fire in a janitorial closet. The emergency sprinklers should have been sufficient to extinguish the flames before they spread, but then it’s discovered that workers during an earlier shift inappropriately stored several pallets of explosives next to the janitor’s closet that allowed the fire to detonate and ultimately burn uncontrollably. Law enforcement and insurance companies are now left to sort out who’s at fault. Most obviously, the arsonist should be prosecuted. He started the fire that caused the explosion and did so with destructive intentions. But had the explosives been properly stored by the earlier shift, the disaster and deaths likely would have been avoided. In interviews, the employees said they felt the situation was unsafe but followed their supervisor’s orders anyway. The supervisor, the seemingly likely culprit, claimed company officials assured him the practice was safe, yet he admitted that he’d asked about safety only once in passing. The company’s safety training program and facilities were found to be adequate, but it was revealed little was done to promote proper safety protocol in practice. While the arsonist is clearly to blame for setting the fire, the company and its employees were negligent for sure, and while they did nothing to directly cause the explosion, they also did nothing to actively prevent a potentially deadly situation.

Widespread religious violence occurs in much the same way as the explosion. President Obama and others are not incorrect in blaming religious violence on a handful of extremists, but they are pointing out the obvious; they are blaming the arsonist. The people who are very often left unmentioned are the billions of religious people around the world who stand by and leave religion exposed to extremist interpretation.

Religion, like the pallets of explosives, is often a seemingly neutral factor in the promotion of violence. Religion is not a person. It does not have free will and cannot act on its own. Religion is an idea, and ideas, like explosives, are tools made and used by people. Explosives go into bombs, but they are also used to build dams, safely demolish old, disintegrating structures and make beautiful fireworks displays. Religions are used in much the same ways: they can teach people to live together peacefully, find deeper meanings in life and nourish souls. At the same time, religions can divide groups of people, stifle individual freedoms and justify wars. Because people feel they are being called by a higher power, religion, like explosive material, has the potential to be extremely dangerous; but when used carefully and handled properly, religion can inspire a great deal of good. Recent examples include Pope Francis’ focus on mercy and on helping the poor and marginalized as well as Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani’s teachings of co-existence with the Bahá’í faith in Iran. If religious violence is to be contained and prevented, followers of all faiths must firmly reject and speak out against hateful, divisive, and violent teachings. People of all beliefs must be constantly active in preventing devastating explosions of religious violence.

It’s easy to see how these principles apply to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups. Right now religious violence is focused in the Islamic world. The Middle East is a hotbed of extremism, hatred and bloodshed, and too few Muslims are taking a stand against it. However, violence has occurred in the name of every religion and often simmers just below the surface of all creeds. Even in the United States, by comparison an incredibly peaceful and civil country, religious intolerance exists. It is evident in the hateful, ethnocentric speech of small groups of extreme Christians, in the threatened Quran burning by Terry Jones and his followers, and in violence such as the Sikh temple shooting in 2012. While these acts may seem unrelated and perpetrated by lone wolves, they share a common religious and cultural background. Because the violence is not widespread and rampant, too few Americans speak out against it. It is obvious to those in the U.S. that such hateful acts are not what Christianity stands for today, but that fact is not so obvious to those in Muslim countries. Conversely, an alarming number of Christians believe Islam is inherently violent and must be countered with violence. It’s that misunderstanding between faiths that escalates the intolerance and killing. People must speak out to quell extremism within their own religions and to communicate to other faiths that fundamentalist acts are “not in our name.” The failure to stand up against extreme views is negligence; it’s a failure to safely handle powerful systems of belief.

Religion in itself is not to blame for violence in its name, but a small handful of fundamentalists are not solely the problem, either. Extremists start the fires, but the rest of us, religious and nonreligious, are to blame for standing by while explosive situations threaten to ignite the world.

Samuel, 29, was born and raised in Vernon, Texas. He is in the graduate architecture program at Cornell University and plans to graduate in 2018. As an undergraduate, he attended Texas Tech University where he earned degrees in architecture and sociology. He hopes to teach architecture at a university and also head a small firm designing public buildings.

Freedom From Religion Foundation