Third place: Graduate student college essay contest by Alex Flitter

What could possibly be the cause of religious terrorism?

FFRF awarded Alex $1,000.

By Alex Flitter

Let’s say I’m a Communist. But not just a Communist, a devout and reverent Communist. Reading the Communist Manifesto daily brings relief, peace and direction to my life. I believe in the book so much that I take every word literally. Moreover, I live my life trying my best to emulate the words and actions of Marx.

Now let’s say there are other people who call themselves Communists, but they have a much more allegorical take on the Communist Manifesto. They preach that Marx didn’t mean that an actual revolution was necessary, but rather a revolution within ourselves. That the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were simply metaphors for the differences in opinions that people have, and that Marx was actually calling for more understanding among people when he called for a classless society.

Now, these allegorical Communists could possibly be more in touch with reality than I am. And they could very well be better people. But simply put, I would be the more faithful Communist. If I were to commit an unspeakable act to advance the aims of communism, would it be realistic to say that “people are responsible for violence and terrorism” and not the ideology that inspired me? (Just for the record, Mr. Senator, I’m not a Communist.)
I understand why President Obama said, regarding ISIS, that “no religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism,” and I recognize that he needs very religious countries to take the lead on combating ISIS. But understanding his rationale doesn’t mean he’s not being intentionally myopic. To hear the president and many others tell the story of religious terrorism, it’s that terrorists use the guise of religion to promote their nonreligious hate and destruction. I suppose I could buy that rationale, if not for the fact that, when interviewed, terrorists or supporters of terrorism directly quote their religious texts to back up their noxious beliefs.

In his first statement offering rationale for why he planted bombs in the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park, Christian terrorist Eric Rudolph quoted a passage from the bible (Psalms 144:1). When ISIS distributed a pamphlet describing the proper protocol for how to treat children and women as slaves, they offered a direct quote from the Quran (23: 5-6). When leader of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri released his classic page-turner “Jihad, Martyrdom and the Killing of Innocents,” he directly quotes passages from the Sunnah and Haddith to justify martyrdom and the murder of innocents.

This seems to cause cognitive dissonance among the majority of the religious that don’t commit atrocities.

They are unable to reconcile how books that bring them joy and peace could drive many to kill. But one read-through of any of the central religious texts makes it clear how such a discrepancy can arise.

This is because the holy books of the major Western religions are remarkably bipolar, interspersed with countless messages of both love and hate at a rapid pace. The very same book of the New Testament calls for gay men to be punished (Romans 1:27) and then later encourages one to live peacefully with all men (Romans 12:18). The Quran praises those who do good deeds and notes the forgiveness of God (9:91). But that very same chapter also calls for people who worship a different god (idolaters) to be murdered or forced to convert (9:5).

Therefore, religious scripture is often a veritable “choose your own adventure” book. If a religious person has an inclination to help people and be kind to others, they can find justification to act that way. And if a religious person has an inclination toward bigotry and supremacism, they can certainly find justification as well. But when a person does the latter, they’re not contorting peaceful religious passages to suit their abhorrent objectives. They are reading the hateful passages word for word and disregarding common sense and common decency because they believe that it is the literal word of God.

It may come as a surprise after this little diatribe that I really don’t hate religion. I’m not so petty as to ignore the positive actions that have been done in the name of religion. I don’t overlook the money amassed and the hours volunteered for worthwhile causes that were inspired by faith. I’m also willing to acknowledge that, thankfully, religious terrorists consist of only a small fraction of those who follow their religion and aren’t representative of those groups. But if a nonreligious person is willing to admit these things, isn’t it time for the religious community to admit the truth about religious terrorism to themselves?

In every ideology, the more literalistic and strident a person’s passion is, the more pure they are to that ideology. But most ideologies are malleable and evolve over time. However, most religions are centered around texts that are thousands of years old and are supposed to contain the literal word of God. Luckily, the majority of the religious are selectively ignoring the passages containing brutality that didn’t belong in the 8th century, let alone the 21st century. But some aren’t.

It’s gotten to a point where after every violent act perpetrated by a religious terrorist, we go into “No True Scotsman” mode, in which we wish away the culpability of religion by convincing ourselves that it’s just that one bad egg, and not the religion, that’s the problem. But it’s also gotten to the point where we have hundreds of thousands of bad eggs in just the past few decades. It’s time for those who only praise the good religion brings while willfully ignoring the bad eggs to finally admit that there’s something wrong with the chicken.

“I am 26 years old and my hometown is Cherry Hill, N.J. In 2012, I graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. I am now attending Rutgers University to earn a Master’s degree in psychology with an anticipated graduation date of May 2016. I have various interests in the field of psychology, including political psychology and social neuroscience. I am also a member of the Student Secular Alliance.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation