It is not helpful to the cause of reducing religious extremism and marginalizing religious zealots – a necessary task if we are to have a society free of religious oppression and violence – to remind us that most believers are good people. Religious people are our family, friends, and neighbors. In our experience, most religious people are good people. It would be more helpful if, instead of devoting so much time apologizing for and defending religious belief and criticizing those who object to religion, believers put their energy towards reforming their religion.
Here’s a good place to start: admit that the authors of your religious texts and doctrines were men, not supernatural beings, and unambiguously and repeatedly condemn all texts and doctrines that preach the subordination of women, the persecution of homosexuals, earthly or eternal discipline and punishment for those who do not accept religious claims, and the myriad other exclusive and hateful beliefs. It really isn’t credible for religious people to claim that they have nothing to do with religious extremism, oppression, and violence but then refuse to condemn texts and doctrines that advocate extremism, oppression, and violence. It will not do to say that the texts and doctrines are “misinterpreted” when the deplorable actions of believers reasonably follow from the texts and doctrines in question – texts that are said to be at the very least inspired by a god.
Religious extremism is enabled by those who insist on the integrity of texts and doctrines that promote oppression and violence. Unless you openly deny that the commandments and sanctions in these texts come not from a god but from men, you are complicit in the crimes that occur in that god’s name. Rationalizing texts and doctrines that are the source of extremism and oppression gives license to those who make war on society in pursuit of a deeper commitment to faith. You cannot remain a moral person and at the same time rationalize genocide, slavery, patriarchy, heterosexism, and terrifying children with stories of eternal damnation. Morally upright persons condemn the texts and doctrines that advocate such things.
It is not the critique of the atheist, the humanist, and the secularist that should be the focus of moderate religious conversation about faith. The faithful should stop worrying about us. You need to worry instead about those among your ranks who threaten the freedom of everybody, including you. The ultimate threat of religious imposition on law and government and education and gender relations, and, yes, religious liberty, is the negation of a free and open society. The liberty that protects your right to believe what you will about the cosmos is the very same liberty that prevents others from forcing you to believe that they believe about the cosmos.
If the faithful really want their religions to survive, if they really mean it when they say they want to promote peace and harmony instead of division and exclusion, then they need to demand that those who claim to share their values practice their faith in way that aligns with the universal and secular and humane values of democracy and liberty. Ultimately, those who reject these doctrines, and who are committed to freedom, will have no choice but to protect democracy and liberty from the threats to it. Free people have a right to defend themselves from backwardness and tyranny.
When left-wing extremists perpetrated violence against those expressing their opinions in public, my condemnation of them and their arguments is swift and unambiguous. I disassociate myself from them and explicitly reject the doctrine they claim justified their actions. Yet when Muslims throw gays from towers or drive trucks through crowds, I don’t hear the Muslim community condemning the texts and doctrines that promote violence against human beings. In fact, when I look at the polls, I see significant numbers of Muslims who think these actions are right and even necessary. When I see conservative Christians making racist, homophobic, and transphobic statements and pushing legislators to pass laws strengthening white male heterosexism, I don’t see Christians condemning those texts and doctrines that condone slavery and promote homophobia. What I hear instead is rhetoric about “loving the sinner but not the sin.”
Instead of asking atheists, humanists, and secularists to moderate their tone or back away from their unflinching criticism of religious belief and practice, join them in the struggle to secure religious liberty for everybody. If reasoned and scientific belief is important to you, if a world free of religious bigotry and violence is what you desire, then you should take up our arguments, not defend the text and doctrines that provide the motive for religious discrimination and violence. Take up the light and help lead the way out of medieval darkness.