I had a conversation with the Atheist Wife last night about religion while we were sitting in bed trying to fall asleep. It started out talking about kids and found its way over to talking about religion and religious extremism, which is a big topic in Australia right now. Apparently, it was brought up by her students in class yesterday (she teaches counselling) and they were being quite hard on Muslims and Islam. “Keep it in their own country,” they were saying. In other words, ‘don’t send your Sharia law and your extreme views over here.’
I had to laugh, both out of a painful awareness of their xenophobia, but because they have missed the point of religious extremism altogether. There are many kinds of religious extremism. The only reason people are worried about Muslim extremists is because they’re the ones shooting people. Meanwhile, extremists from other religions are quietly influencing politics and society in ways that will affect everyone’s lives whether they live in the Middle East or not.
My Atheist Wife had to agree with me once I explained it. The fact that Christian groups in America, Australia and elsewhere are wielding such influence in politics is a kind of extremism. The belief that America is a “Christian country” is a form of extremism. The belief that our laws were based on Christian principles really isn’t any different from Sharia law. Oddly enough, Christian political groups in the United States sound a lot like Islamic State terrorists if you’re paying attention.
Apparently my tone when talking about this was angsty enough for my partner to ask, “When did you start disliking religion so much?” It was quite a change for her because when we met, I was still trying to cling to my religiousness. In fact if you look back at this blog, you will see that struggle written down and on display.
Her question brought me up short, to be honest. I couldn’t explain why I felt the way I did. I sputtered, trying to explain something I had not examined and had not consciously thought about yet. “Because I know what they’re like,” I managed to say. “I know how they think. I know what they want the world to be like.”
That’s true. After living my whole life surrounded by good, earnest religious people who are kind and caring and sunk into their religious beliefs as far as they can be, I know what to expect. I know the doctrines and dogmas very well (my dad was a priest, so how could I not?) and I know their logical outcomes.
The fact of the matter is that all religions believe they will take over the world and rule it in the image of their beliefs. I’m not saying this without foundation. Rev. Howard Bess, a retired Alaskan minister, has written about this often. He wrote one article with the title “Why Do Arrogant Christian Leaders Want Their Religion to Take Over the World?” The article is worth a read, written as it is from a Christian perspective. He is more optimistic about Christianity than I am, and that’s alright. But he and I agree on something very important: there are Christian extremists who want their religion to rule the world.
My partner thought about my explanation for a moment. “I guess I just don’t see it as that extreme,” she said. “But I don’t know much about it anyway.” I have to admit that I kind of envied her. She was able to see it as just something people do whereas I see it differently. I see it as dangerous, no matter how well-intentioned.
Interestingly, I’m not the only one. Bess does as well. A quick Google search of his name brings you to a Salon article published in 2008 during the presidential campaign. Sarah Palin had been tapped as the vice-presidential nominee and was the conservative darling of the time. Bess lived just a little ways away from Wasilla, Alaska, where Palin is from and was worried about the religious fervor she was kicking up. “At this point, people in this country don’t grasp what this person is all about. The key to understanding Sarah Palin is understanding her radical theology.” The article makes pretty clear his worry: people like Palin believe their religion should rule the world.
If you doubt the premise I’ve put forward here, remember that Palin tried to get Bess’ book Pastor, I’m Gay banned from the local library when she was mayor of Wasilla. The book was a theological journey putting forward the idea that homosexuals weren’t evil sinners. It is easy to see why the Christian conservatives like Palin would want the book banned. It disagreed with what they believed and had to be eradicated.
So the Islamic State terrorists and Christians like Sarah Palin both believe that their religion should rule the world. What’s the difference between them, other than their chosen religion? Only one is killing people over it.
I’m not going to say that the two extremes are completely the same. There is a difference. I also want to note that I’m taking God out of this equation. This is not a question about whether religions are right about things of God. This is a question about how people use religion for power and to influence the world. And I’m afraid that it cannot be claimed that they are any different in what they want. Only in how they are going about it.