Second place: Graduate student college essay contest by Benjamin Schwartz

Nothing to fear but faith itself

FFRF awarded Benjamin $2,000.

By Benjamin Schwartz

Whenever religious terrorists make headlines, commentators perform all manner of mental gymnastics to assure us that the violence is aberrational, completely divorced from the belief system that its propagators would argue not only condoned their acts of murder, but commanded them. Scholars such as Jessica Stern and Ariel Glucklich echo President Obama’s claim that violence indicates a “perversion” of its culprit’s faith. Violence, however, is no perversion of faith — nor does it stem from one faith in particular. (Those on the far right who decry Islam as a religion of violence ignore the prolific, bloodthirsty legacy of Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc., from the Spanish Inquisition to Baruch Goldstein.) Rather, history teaches us that violence is a direct result and unavoidable consequence of the most unpardonable, amoral, inextricable aspect of religion: faith itself.

This argument is hugely inflammatory to most religious adherents (“people of faith”), yet it should come as no surprise. When we expand our scope from religious violence to the history of mass acts of evil more broadly, faith in the infallibility of a heroic individual or political system is constantly at the root of systemic violence. (Often this faith is likened to a “cult” of personality, which derives from the Latin word for “worship.”) Within such regimes, every utterance and piece of pageantry consciously reinforces the belief that the state contains the single correct answer to all questions of comportment, morality and law, and thus that any action committed by the state is by definition justifiable. This absolutist “faith” is decried in the context of secular leaders and political regimes — especially those that commit acts of violence — but vehemently defended when it comes in the guise of religion.

In fact, quite far from being decried or even questioned, faith is the most valorized virtue within almost every religious doctrine. In the fundamental texts of monotheism, it is absolute fealty to the deity’s whims that makes one the most moral, worthy and, ultimately, successful. Look no further than Abraham, the fundamental figure of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, three faiths that today count nearly 4 billion followers between them, who is blessed beyond all others in large part because of his willingness to kill his only son on the vague orders of an unseen voice. According to the biblical passage, Abraham’s virtue resides in his “fear” of the Lord, which outweighs his “love” of his son (Genesis 22: 1-12). This heinous moral logic can be reflected today in the hierarchical nature of the three monotheistic faiths, which demand their followers supersede their own desire, will and logical faculties to the impregnable pronouncements of the Lord no matter how horrific they may be. It should come as no surprise that zealots are willing to kill other people’s children because of a perceived imperative from their God when “mainstream” people of faith celebrate Abraham for the only thing that could be more monstrous: a willingness to kill his own.

Though we most often think of religious violence in terms of bombings and shootings, most of the violence done by religion takes the form of unseen crimes that depend upon the perpetrator’s position of authority in regard to the victim. It is fitting that the fundamental figure in Western religion is a would-be child murderer, considering the pervasive nature of crimes against children within Abrahamic faiths.

Unlike suicide bombers, child rapists do not argue that there is an explicit justification for their actions within their holy text — yet faith is no less to blame. It is faith in the rectitude of the clergy cultivated in children from birth that puts them in danger.

Likewise it is adults’ faith that spreading the pronouncements of an imaginary God is more important than the very real lives of victims that creates the pervasive, systematized cover-ups that occur all over the world. Multiple times, religious leaders were willing to defend colleagues accused of rape even after those accusations were made public. “That’s not our job to judge,” says one Protestant reverend, stoically. “It’s the Lord’s job.” Or, to put it even more bluntly, as Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles wrote when discussing his decision not to expose a rapist priest, “We could open up yet another fire storm — and it takes us years to recover from those.”

Religious violence will end when we cease to valorize “faith,” and instead recognize it as an abjection of our most meaningful and most beautifully human functions: the ability to reason, empathize, and ultimately decide on matters of right and wrong, just and unjust, true and false, for ourselves. Faith’s demand that we subvert our own faculties to the dictums of flawed humans or imaginary deities is the ultimate form of religious violence:

The schism between the observable universe and the dogma that must be accepted unerringly on faith causes pain and anguish more frequently than we can possibly understand or analyze. The violence and terror spawned by religion — whether by that we mean suicide attacks, systematized cover-ups of abuse, or simply the mental anguish of holding dusty tautologies to be truer than what our own logical and emotional capacities lead us to believe — will continue until faith, and, with it, religion itself, is a point of embarrassment in our society, not one of pride.

“I was born in Fairfield, Conn., the son of a deeply devout Catholic mother and a Jewish father. I graduated from Brown University with a degree in American Studies, which I decided to put to proper use as a teacher in a new middle school in the Bridgeport, Conn., school district. I am in a master’s degree program in English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. I expect to finish my degree in May 2016 and hope to return to the field of education before eventually going on to pursue my Ph.D. I hope to continue to use my voice to vociferously protest with every ounce of my being the forces of ignorance, repression and bigotry in American life, particularly those voices who attempt to hide behind the cloak of faith.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation