The Human Condition:

The Roots of Religious Anger – February 1, 2015

Arab-style dagger

After the riotous outcry against Jyllands-Posten and the massacre at Charlie Hebdo for publishing satiric cartoons, the fatwa and death threats against Salman Rushdie for writing a speculative novel, and similar cries of death for insulting and blaspheming against Islam, one has to wonder about the nature of this belief system.

For most people in the West, religion is a private thing. It’s a matter “between a man and his maker.” To quote Elizabeth I, who inherited a bloody struggle between Protestants and Catholics that her father had unintentionally ignited, “I would not open windows into men’s souls.” Yes, the West has experienced various spasms of inquisition and pogrom. “God wills it!” has been the call for several crusades, and remains a rallying cry up to the present time. But since the Enlightenment—which appears to have been a response to growing scientific understanding, widespread literacy and the availability of printed books, and dawning notions about individuality and a man’s mind belonging to himself1—most Westerners have sent religious certainty, canonical authority, and persuasion by violence to the back seat of their social and political thinking. Religion still matters, of course, but on a more personal level, and not enough to make us disrespect—let alone kill—one another.

Because I’m a forward-thinking person, a writer of science fiction rather than historical fiction, I find it difficult to place myself in the pre-Enlightenment mindset. But I can appreciate that the followers of Islam who participate in or approve of such massacres, fatwas, and jihad in the sense of “religious war” rather than “personal struggle” take their religion to be a statement of political belief and ethnic, or even tribal, unity. Doubt, perspective, and compromise are not permitted in this belief system and never openly entertained. Opposing views are never given the respect inherent in the realization that they might just possibly be right. Opposition equals error equals sin equals death.

And yet … Might not people who are so touchy about the dignity and reality of their truly, deeply, dearly held beliefs be exposing … well, a hint about their own doubts? Compare this with the deep, smoldering anger you feel when someone reminds you of an act or behavior that you yourself know to be wrong or about which you feel guilty. You hate to think of the error you’ve made, but you hate even more being reminded of it by someone else. On the other hand, when you're absolutely sure of your reasons and know you’re right, then accusations just roll off your skin, leaving your core mind untouched. By their anger shall you see through them.

Perhaps the social forces that coerce the average Middle Easterner to believe in the unerring word of God as received by Muhammad—and to speak, act, eat, fast, dress, and pray five times a day accordingly—arouses some latent resentment that cannot speak its name. If you and everyone you know must follow the same codes—down to the way you cut your hair and beard—not just at the risk of social disharmony and shunning, but on pain of actual, physical violence, extinction, and eternal damnation, then you might feel personally repressed. Oh, sure, purified and sanctified at the same time, but also moderately badgered and harried. The desire for freedom of expression, for a day of relaxation, for a chance to break the bonds and cut loose is not just a Western cultural attribute but a reflection of human nature and the spirit that keeps us all sprinting toward a long life.

People living within such strictures, where to revolt or even to criticize is death, will become massively angry when confronted with co-religionists who dare to flout the rules, or with competing societies which deny that the rules exist or have any value. In the pressure cooker of a straitlaced and fearful life, condemnation of the unrepentant sinner is an alternative form of emotional release.2

In the Western view, having crossed over into the secularism of the Enlightenment, such a society is not stable. Repression of natural human emotions and instincts may work for a time, or in a closed and limited society. But it is not a model for world domination and governance. One mind can remain tied off and closed, and perhaps even a whole family and tribe can exist that way, but not a dynamic, viable culture or society.

However, extricating the Muslim societies from their trap will require the same long and difficult road that Christendom traveled: from consolidation of authority to individualistic reformation to secular Enlightenment. In the meantime all that we in the West can do is watch and hope and wait for the request for assistance—if it ever comes.

And during that waiting, what is a gentleman to do? I would take comfort in three general guidelines for good behavior. First, a gentleman does not mock another man’s religion. Second, a gentleman recognizes that one must sometimes respond to deep insult with an act of calculated violence.3 But third, a gentleman also expects other reasonable people to adhere to the words of Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly fame: “If I ever kill you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing me, and you'll be armed.”

So the least a decent person can expect from their religious anger is a fair fight.

1. Not to mention the introduction of coffee and tea to European society. Since no one dared drink from the river—or even their own well water, because the well usually sat downhill from the privy—people up through Shakespeare’s time started the day with cider and small beer, then went on to wine and brandy at lunchtime. Fermentation and its resulting alcohol killed most of the bugs in the water but left everyone well plotzed by mid-afternoon. Coffee and tea were prepared by boiling the water rather than through fermentation, and they had the added benefit of being natural stimulants rather than depressants. People stopped wandering around in a fog and got serious about ordering their society, its politics, and economics; invented modern concepts of risk, insurance, banking, and the time value of money; and created our modern world. See Coffee Took Us to the Moon from February 23, 2014.

2. For more on this, consider the Salem witch trials.

3. Thrashing a mocker at dawn with sword or pistol once was the ancient right of any gentleman. Or, as Robert A. Heinlein would have it, “an armed society is a polite society.” It wouldn’t work today, of course, because pistols are now more reliable, semi-automatic, and don’t need the skilled and steady hand that a matched pair of flintlocks once required. And, in our underhanded society, any brawl that started with the finesse of swords would quickly degenerate into a shootout with backup weapons.