Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Sacred Enough to Kill For

*Note: Re-posted after the murder of secularist writer Avijit Roy in Bangladesh; a man brave enough to think and write freely even though he knew what the consequences might be. RIP

It is putting a very high value on one's conjectures, to have a man roasted alive because of them. - Michel de Montaigne
Today in Paris, three Islamic radicals walked into the office of a satirical newspaper called Charlie Hebdo and gunned down several unarmed people. Why? Because the newspaper had published cartoons depicting Muhammad and mocking radical Islam. During the attack, the gunmen shouted, "God is great!" and, "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad."

It didn't matter that the newspaper mocked absolutely everybody, or that Muhammad has been dead for over a thousand years. These men believe there are certain ideas and certain people who simply cannot be mocked. And they believe anyone who does mock them deserves to die. They believe it so fervently they were willing to pick up guns and murder them themselves.

In other words, they didn't murder them for killing or raping anyone, or for stealing, or anything like that. They murdered them over a set of unproven, hypothetical ideas..

Nobody has ever proven that God/Allah exists, or that Muhammad was his prophet, or that God wants his followers to kill anyone who insults him or his representatives. There's no hard evidence of any of that. There are just claims made in a very old book, and it's as easy to make false claims in a book as true ones. In fact, it's far easier. That's no less true if the book is old, and venerated by multitudes. Millions of people once believed what the Iliad said about Athena, and some of them would have killed me for saying she doesn't exist. But she doesn't.

The tragic situation, then, is that 12 people were murdered today for daring to mock a set of unproven hypotheses. What's even more tragic is that millions of people throughout history have been murdered for the same reason, and by many other religions besides Islam. What's unusual about modern Islam is not that it has so many violent extremists, but that it still does.* The Montaigne quote at the beginning of this essay comes from a time when people in the west were routinely roasted alive for their beliefs.

History has shown that the ideas people are most willing to kill each other over are also the ones they are least able to prove. There's nothing in this entire world more disheartening to me than that. How could anybody be so sure of their beliefs that they're willing to kill another human being just for challenging them? Let's face it: whether he exists or not, God is invisible. You can't point to him, like you might point to the moon, and say, "See, there he is." Yet people aren't generally killed for denying the existence of undeniable things--the members of the Flat Earth Society don't need to fear for their lives--but people are killed for denying the existence of an invisible entity. That strikes me as insane. Common, but insane.

No idea is so sacred to me that I would kill somebody for questioning or mocking it. Life is far too short and precious, and the human mind is far too easily fooled. It's too easy to be wrong. [This past week, millions of people were shocked to discover they couldn't even agree on whether a dress was black and blue or white and gold.]

If I looked up in the sky and saw a great heavenly figure holding a tablet that said, "I am the Lord thy God. Kill anyone who insults me!", I would assume I had gone nuts. If a billion other people saw it and videotaped it, and it ran on the evening news, I would say, "Well, how do we know that was really God? And if it was, why would he say that? Isn't he supposed to be all-powerful and utterly good? Why would a being like that be so sensitive to insults as to wish death on his own creations? And why did he give us a mind if he didn't want us asking questions like that?" I simply can't imagine any evidence that would convince me that people should be murdered for mocking an idea (or a powerful, God-like being...should one ever unambiguously appear.)

Some ideas are surely worth dying for, but no idea is sacred enough to kill for. At least, not simply for questioning or mocking it. In fact, human ideas must be questioned, or we'll never be able to separate the good ones from the bad ones. That means all ideas; even the ones people hold sacred. If they're true, they can withstand the questioning. Besides, maybe the "sacredness" of some ideas is, as Douglas Adams suggested, an evolved characteristic of some ideologies--a kind of self-protective mechanism, like a tortoise's shell. Maybe it hasn't persisted because it's true, but because it says, "If you mess with me, I'll hurt you." That's how chain letters spread. Has the persistence of chain letters ever been an indicator of their truth? Maybe the ideas that need questioned most are those that have been hiding under that shell that says, "Don't question me."

In the paragraph above, after I wrote the phrase "sacred enough to kill for", I looked back at it and shuddered. What a truly awful phrase--the very idea is perverse and even oxymoronic. It's also tragically common. It may be one of the worst ideas humankind has ever had. Like all bad ideas, it needs to be thrown onto that vast pile of history's other horrible notions. And we shouldn't mourn it when it's gone, because no idea is too sacred to question, much less sacred enough to kill for. Life is what's really sacred.


I'm not saying the history of religion has been nothing but violence. Religion seems to have a strange tendency to bring out the best AND worst in people. People have also done great and kind things in the name of the same religions that others have killed for.

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