(Dear readers; this is the entire letter to the editor that Newsday severely edited when they printed it last week on Tuesday, November 24, 2015.)
Although a military response to the Paris atrocity on 11/13/15 seems inevitable and probably necessary, I believe it alone will not stop the spread of the dangerous theology of ISIS or similar groups, and therefore not prevent future attacks. We, the U.S. and its allies, are doing absolutely nothing to counter the ISIS theology effectively. Some in public life even hesitate to call the ISIS ideology a religion or theology – this is only a form of denial. This theology is really the only thing ISIS has to offer – in no way does ISIS have an economic program to offer its followers nor does it offer any other program peculiar to its theology that would make the lives of its followers better. It only offers one thing; paradise after death, with the easiest path to paradise being martyrdom on the battlefield against infidels.
Many theologies offer salvation after death, including Christianity and Islam. It is a problem for humanity as a whole when a believer then comes to the conclusion that perpetrating harm on others is the will of their god or a requirement of their religion. Fortunately for humanity, the vast majority of the various forms religion do not concentrate on the benefits of martyrdom but many religions do allow for unethical behavior and thus causing harm if their god or scripture demands it. The harm, for example, can consist of making the lives of gay persons miserable; and the harm they believe their religion requires can escalate to the point to where they can theologically justify the execution of non-believers. Such executions have occurred within Christianity for centuries in the past such as during the Inquisition and apostasy is still the law of the land in a number of Islamic nations today. This danger for humanity is multiplied if believers are also certain that what they believe is true, as if their opinions on the question of the existence of god and his requirements were infallible. If someone then makes the claim that their god would never require them to do something that is wrong, do not be surprised when they come to believe that causing religiously justified harm and misery somehow is, to them, the “right” and “moral” thing to do.
The beginning of the battle against the ISIS theology must be the promotion of the idea that right and wrong depends on whether a behavior causes harm or well being and whether misery or happiness is the result of that behavior. The argument against a harmful terrorist theology must also include the idea that we, as humans, are fallible and our opinions on the existence of god, and our knowledge of god’s intentions and requirements are our opinions of the facts and that our opinions are not facts themselves. Let me summarize; causing harm is wrong, increasing well being is right, and we are not infallible in our opinions.
Why do we not do promote these ideas? Why do politicians, public officials and religious leaders rarely, if ever, say these kinds of things? The answer is because this argument against the terrorist theology of ISIS also discredits any belief system that assumes that “right” and “wrong” are determined by god, scripture or religion instead of whether a behavior harms others or increases the well being of others. If right and wrong are not the province of god and religion, the need for god and religion no longer exists. This conclusion, even though it is correct and even though religious morality can be replaced by a humanistic system of ethics, is a conclusion that the religious and fanatically ideological have not yet been able to accept.
I wrote the above letter a couple of weeks ago, well before the atrocity in San Bernardino where it seems likely that a radical jihadist married couple decided it was the will of their god that they kill as many others, presumably infidels, as they could for no other reason than it was their god's will. Since the victims were infidels, this was a moral act, they most likely believed. The benefit to the now deceased married jihadists is that they would go to paradise for their obedience and martyrdom.
The husband was a member of the local mosque and was considered devout but other members of the mosque have expressed shock that he could be so murderous. I believe that their shock is genuine but this shock leads to a troubling conclusion; he was not much different from a non-murderous religious person UNTIL he privately decided he could no longer compromise the word of his god and that he REALLY REALLY believed in a paradise after death and that he was certain of all these beliefs.
The thing that is troubling is that most believers, moderate or radical, believe in the afterlife, believe that obedience to scripture, god, their religious tenets or religious leaders is moral and that they are certain of their beliefs. The thing that differentiates extremists from others is the extremist's unwillingness to compromise the word of their god. Most believers do NOT completely comply with their religion's requirements and allow others, for the most part, and to varying degrees in various societies, to live and let live. (However, please note how often the idea of not compromising one's ideology is seen as a virtue in the public square.)
The idea that one can be uncertain and willing to consider other ideas, actually, is the essence of secularism, which a form of public and governmental neutrality on matters of religious and other ideological belief. Religious morality is replaced by an ethics in which allowable behaviors are those that make life better and behavior to be moderated are those behaviors that harm others. Religious beliefs can carry no weight here since there is no way to reconcile them. Secularism's goal is not to end religion - it's goal is to allow diverse peoples to live together and thrive together.
But you can see the problem; it is difficult if not impossible for many persons of faith to come to grips with the idea that the only way a world of diverse believers and non-believers can live happily together is to compromise their obedience to the word of their particular gods and embrace a secular society and government. Although our Founding Fathers devised this brilliant system of secularism to separate ideology and government, and secular ethics has chipped away at religious excesses in many societies, secularism is still not fully accepted, and this is why the world continues to struggle in the battle against religious extremists of all kinds.