Religion is blamed for a number of society's problems. Some of these accusations have substance but the belief that religion is to blame for extremism is deeply flawed. It is based on hand-picked sources taken out of context and ignores the conflicting sources that forbid violence, or suicide or the killing of innocents. It dismisses the spirit of charity and equality which characterises how the religions were founded and are practiced by the majority of their followings. But above all it ignores the overriding role of circumstances in shaping behaviour.
Part of the problem is that most major religions are based on diverse texts in ancient contexts and obscure languages. This potential for interpretation gives extremists, New Atheists or academics the flexibility to depict them in any way that suits. But tying ourselves up in theological knots debating the 'true' meaning ignores a key misconception - that religion has so much say on our behaviour in the first place. Evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers and academics overwhelmingly agree that it is circumstance, not ideology that dictates our behaviour. We do not make decisions in a vacuum. We are driven by the situations we live in, and the evolutionary survival needs they trigger. Religion is just one of many socially available narratives used to explain or gain support for evolutionary driven behaviour.
Overcoming this misconception enables us to understand why for centuries the same religions have been used to justify selfless charity, mindless violence, and anything in between. Why Christianity was used to rally the genocide of The Crusades on the one hand as well as and selfless care for the sick on the other. Why Islam is vehemently blamed for ISIS terrorism by some, but hundreds of academics categorically say the opposite. Why for thousands of years every single major religion has changed and adapted often beyond recognition.
The driving role of circumstance becomes obvious if you look for it. Historian Karen Armstrong describes the Crusades as a political "struggle for power between popes and emperors". Despite the religious rhetoric, The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more than a land grab of increasing Jewish and Muslim wealth. The situation in the Middle East today is influenced by (amongst other things) a century of Western invasions, rigged elections, arbitrarily drawn borders, and oil-centric economies that give power to the wealthy few. Most of ISIS' leadership are former members of Saddam Hussein's secular government, with an obvious 'circumstantial axe' to grind. Didier Francois, a former ISIS captive, stated that the Quran hardly ever featured in ISIS discourse, as did David Kenner, who conducted interviews with 15 of their supporters. One Charlie Hebdo attacker was unable to separate Catholicism from Islam and Britons departing for Syria were spotted with 'Islam for dummies' in their hand luggage. Psychology journal The Scientific American Mind recently shed light on how extremist recruiters isolate recruits from mainstream society. They then lure with positive imagery to promise a better world. Out-of-context snippets of the Quran are used, but the true pull is the evolutionary desire for acceptance.
Groups such as the New Atheists attempt to prove the inherently violent nature of Islam by highlighting its uniqueness compared to other, more 'peaceful' religions. But when we understand that behaviour is driven by circumstance, comparisons can be made to the non-religious world too. By doing this, we can see there is nothing unique about the abhorrent behaviour of religious extremists. Secular regimes have produced some of the biggest genocides in human history. Nazi Germany is an obvious example - their method of turning millions against the Jews has strong parallels with ISIS recruitment techniques. Add to that Russian Gulags, Bosnian war camps, and any other number of totalitarian regimes. There's also the many 100s of suicide bombings conducted by the secular Tamil Tigers, proving that a promise of the afterlife is not needed to take your own life. Isolated attacks by religious fanatics are not too dissimilar from US college shootings.
A core part of ISIS' strategy is to remove 'the grey zone' - the area where Muslims and non-Muslims are able to co-exist peacefully. Central to achieving this is Western Islamophobia which acts as the fuel for their propaganda machine. Every time Nigel Farage says 'multi-culturalism has failed', Donald Trump that 'Muslims should be banned from entering the USA' or New Atheists that 'Islam is inherently violent', we create more ISIS recruits and put ourselves in danger in the process. We don't have to like religion, or agree with everything it says, but for our own sake we should put its role in context. In doing so, we can address the true causes of the violence in the world today.
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