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Killing for religion

(This article is based on a presentation the author gave to CFI Toronto in 2008.)

On December 10, 2007, 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez was found strangled, and succumbed to the assault within hours. Her father, Muhammad Parvez, and her brother Waqas were charged with her murder.

Initial speculation was that the murder was a result of Aqsa’s defiance of her father’s request that she wear the traditional Muslim head covering called a hijab, and a desire to ‘westernize’ her clothing and activities.

Even if this were not the case, it is a fact that there have been similar incidents of violence towards women for perceived acts of disobedience of religious or social traditions—something not unique to Islam.

The resulting public reaction was predictable and mostly consisted of expressions of outrage and disgust. Among the reactions were some comments showing a lack of understanding, which can cloud our judgment when it comes to discussing preventive measures. This I find disturbing. It is my fervent hope that we can stop this particular brand of insanity, but in order to do so we must ensure that our efforts are properly directed.

The comments heard in the aftermath of this tragedy came from all walks of life and from many philosophical positions. As skeptics and purveyors of science and reason, we must be able to present a rational and balanced viewpoint that is considered, not a knee-jerk reaction.

(I should note that I am not trying to reach any specific conclusions nor propose remedies and solutions; that level of analysis is best left to those with more resources and qualifications than I have. I simply wish to express my thoughts and try to figure out how we should approach these situations as skeptics.)

A few days after Aqsa Parvez’s death, a well-known radio commentator asked, “Does this not invalidate Islam? ” While he was sure to say that there were many good and decent Muslims, his implication was clear—he questioned whether Islam is valid.

This statement above all others caused me to think about this subject.

In my opinion this act, horrific as it was, invalidates nothing. It does not invalidate a god concept, it does not invalidate religion in general or Islam in particular, and, as shocking as this may sound, it does not invalidate the father’s belief in the righteousness of his actions. For all we know there may be a god who wishes us to act as Islam dictates. I don’t believe that and I feel certain that none of the readers will give the idea even a microsecond of consideration, but there is still no invalidation of anything. This was the act of one man who did it for reasons of his own.

As an atheist I cannot blame a god I don’t believe in. As a skeptic I cannot blame a religion that, in its original texts, does not preach that women should be killed for such a thing. Intellectual honesty compels skeptics to learn the facts, and from all accounts the facts are clear—all the Qur’an says is that women should dress modestly, and prescribes no punishment for those who choose to dress as they wish.

As an evolutionist I am compelled not to blame religion. Instead I see this as an entirely naturalistic human failing. Here we have a man who should have possessed the paternal instincts rooted in brain chemistry that has evolved over eons that would cause him to protect, nurture, and love his daughter. Those instincts seem to have been so weak that they were overcome by his own personal interpretation of a vague religious edict. People who do this do not have parental instincts strong enough to prevent them from harming their own children or allowing them to be harmed; in a sense they are an evolutionary dead-end. There is no religious victory here, simply a human failing. If we blame religion, we are shirking our responsibilities as skeptics and as humans to look for proper causes based on human emotions and natural causes.

If we cavalierly dismiss this as an invalidation of a religion, we are cheating ourselves by taking the easy way out; we are cheating society out of a chance to investigate and perhaps explain a very real problem that deserves attention; and we are cheating Aqsa Parvez, a young woman who simply wanted to live her life as she saw fit.

We do not know about Aqsa’s religious convictions. For all we know she may have been conventionally religious, perhaps even devout, but merely unwilling to go along with certain cultural strictures. Let us not insult her memory with conjecture.

Where are these cultural strictures found? Not in the Qur’an, but in the Hadith—a set of religious texts written by other Islamic scholars after the prophet Mohammed’s death. Linguistically the word Hadith means “that which is new from amongst things,” or “a piece of information conveyed either in a small quantity or large.” That seems rather wishy-washy, as many religious texts tend do be. Generally people invent meanings from statements, condense texts, pick and choose, or expound on them voluminously to bamboozle the faithful.

The implication is that if you wish to know what Mohammed said, read the Qur’an, but if you wish to know what he meant, read the Hadith. It is the Hadith that expounds the Qur’an’s advice that women should dress modestly, turning a description of how to dress, with no prescribed punishment, into an intolerant dictate that women be completely covered and subjected to severe punishment for disobedience. Like any other writings, the Hadith has as much credibility as an individual wishes to give it. It could be seen as ‘gospel truth’ written by hands that were guided by a god, or it could be seen as a medieval version of a Jack Chick tract.

Many non-theists will immediately see religion as the problem in all this, and they would be partially correct. But it is not religion per sè, rather the way humans use, misuse, and abuse it. Atheists are not immune. We bristle, and rightly so, when theists admonish us by saying that atheism is just another form of religion. It is not, but neither is theism—both are simply position statements (one believes there is a god, the other does not).

Another thing that infuriates non-theists is the claim that the most barbarous and murderous states of recent times, and perhaps of all time, have been officially atheistic. Unfortunately they are probably correct. The caveat here for atheists is that if we are not careful to temper our philosophy with sound judgment and healthy scepticism, we can become that which we claim to oppose. Atheism may not be a religion, although some can preach and practise it with a religious fervour, but atheists can still be religious. It can be benign or even beneficial; I have often viewed my naturalism as a form of religion and see no problem with that description (it makes me happy), although carrying it to the extremes that organisations like PETA present is, in my opinion, fundamentalism.

Perhaps the most insidious form of atheistic ‘religion,’ at least in recent experience, is statism—the worship of the state and its ideals and progress. Ostensibly atheistic leaders such as Josef Stalin, Mao Xe Dong, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong Il have been almost deified as prophets at best and demi-gods at worst. Who of my generation can forget newsreel footage of thousands of uniformed Chinese civilians waving their little red book of quotations from Chairman Mao? There have even been incidents that imply a supernatural power. When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, some of his entourage were taken to a hospital and witnessed an operation. The patient was awake and alert during the procedure, waving the little red book and extolling the virtues of Mao. If that ain’t that old time religion, I don’t know what is. (It turns out that the operation was rigged; it was a fervent volunteer who had been given massive doses of local anaesthesia.)

I would submit that China under Mao was just as theocratic as Afghanistan under the Taliban. In Russia the long lines waiting in Red Square to glimpse Lenin’s body lying in state lasted for decades, and continue in smaller form to the present day, therefore testifying to the enduring quasi-religious fervour attached to his name and legacy.

Religion is not entirely blameless, but it’s an enabler at most. It’s rather like the person who drives the getaway car—some drivers are unwitting or unwilling dupes. Theists ride away claiming that their religions have never/would never do such a thing, and atheists hop on board and proclaim that their freedom from religion means that they could never do it. (At such times I have heard individuals from both groups invoke Anthony Flew’s ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy*.) Some of those who are anti-religion or anti-Islam can just quickly dismiss it on that basis without any further thought. They are all wrong, as blood-soaked human history both current and ancient can all too easily illustrate.

If you wish to combat the excesses of religion, go ahead; I believe it’s a noble cause and I will stand beside you. If I can fit into my old uniform I might even lead a battalion. But I will only do so on two conditions: 1) That you realise that such excess is a strictly natural human failing that can exist independent of theism. 2) We admit that we are all therefore susceptible.

* Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about the ‘Brighton sex maniac’ striking again. Hamish is shocked and declares, “No Scotsman would do such a thing!” The next day he sits down to read the Herald and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.” – From Thinking About Thinking – Or Do I Sincerely Want to be Right? by Anthony Flew, 1975.

6 responses to “Killing for religion”

  1. Dave says:

    Another evil of religion is that it robs humans of well deserved praise, by making pride a sin

  2. David Bailey says:

    Is that the best you can do? Please give me something to work with. Until then I’ll try to make sense of things.

    Me – As an atheist I cannot blame a god
    You – Yes you can…

    Of course I can blame a god if I wish, as I could also blame my recycling bin or the guy who operates the hot dog cart down at the beach. But obviously I was speaking of my own sense of morality and ethics, which prevent me from indulging in such a pointless and hypocritical venture.

    Me – Religion is not entirely blameless
    You – Yes, it is.

    A person’s actions may be informed and sanctioned by the religion they follow, and can have an effect upon those who are easily swayed. So yes, it is not entirely blameless. Those who promote a religious belief should be aware of that and take steps to mitigate any such problems. When I said ‘religion’ I was referring to the institution, which I would think anyone could grasp.

    Me – If you wish to combat the excesses of religion, go ahead
    You – *Facepalm*

    How witty[/sarcasm] I am stating that I have no moral right to prevent anyone from taking action, but I am not endorsing any particular course.

    Me – I should note that I am not trying to reach any specific conclusions
    You – You should be…

    Explanation needed, I don’t have ESP.

    You – Cultural Stricture is Located in Cerebellic Lobe”

    Maybe, but unimportant. I don’t give damn where it’s located, the fact is that cultural strictures are learned behaviours. That’s why we have so many different ones, they are not homogeneous across the world.

    Anyway, enough troll feeding for one day.

    Dave Bailey

  3. Steven Acton says:

    As an atheist I cannot blame a god

    Yes you can…

    Religion is not entirely blameless

    Yes, it is.

    If you wish to combat the excesses of religion, go ahead


    I should note that I am not trying to reach any specific conclusions

    You should be…

    Cultural Stricture is Located in Cerebellic Lobe

  4. David Bailey says:

    Please use your real name and not an e-mail handle.

    I did not “link genocides perpetrated by officially atheistic states to atheism itself”, I merely expressed my opinion that atheists are capable of turning their philosophy into a religion, and that states such as those run by Stalin or Mao make ‘statism’ an unofficial religion. I stand by that statement. As far as creationists turning ‘evolutionist’ into a pejorative, I am really not concerned with what they think. I accept the evidence for evolution, I promote understanding and acceptance of it, and I defend it. The word is grammatically appropriate as far as I can see. I am more concerned with those of us who continually state that they ‘believe’ in evolution. If you believe in it then you don’t understand it.

  5. pensive says:

    Attempts to link genocides perpetrated by officially atheistic states to atheism itself are intellectually lazy. Neither Soviet Russia nor Maoist China committed the atrocities in the name of atheism. There were no slogans of the form “kill all theists, for our lack of belief is superior!”.

    Furthermore you do yourself a disservice by using the term ‘evolutionist’. It is an anachronism that has been dredged up in recent times by The Institute for Creation Research to malign scientific acceptance of evolution as founded in faith. The more rabid believers of creationism use the term as an epithet.

    • David Bailey says:

      > Attempts to broaden the definition of religion to mean merely unquestioning acceptance of certain beliefs (i.e. discarding the supernatural element) are ill-advised.

      In my opinion the comparison is valid, and adequately illustrates the point I am trying to make.

      > Proponents of general relativity are not called relativists. Proponents of the Big Bang theory are not called Big Bang-ists. Proponents of quantum field theory are not called quantum field theorists (the term actually refers to those who have a deep understanding of QFT, or those who work on the theory in academia). Public perception of terms does matter. A lot.

      “Why would the the designer not borrow that ingenious invention, the feather, for at least one bat? The evolutionist’s answer is clear. – Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, page 297.”

      Dawkins has obviously no objection to the term. I am in good company.

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