September 20, 2010

Tragedy Averted

People ask sometimes -- either explicitly or by implication -- why it is that I direct so much snark at Christianity. And in fact, most Christians I know are good people, smart people, reasonable people who do not let the fact that they hold a set of actually quite bizarre beliefs interfere with remarkably normal lives and normal decision-making.

It is when people take their religious beliefs too seriously, too literally, too fanatically, that they become dangerous. Some Muslims, when they take their religious beliefs too seriously, strap bombs to themselves and try to kill as many infidels as they can so that they can ascend to paradise. This is a criminal act and one which admits of not even the remotest bit of moral justification. This behavior of people who don't know where to draw the line between the fantasy role-playing game they call religion and the world of reality in which we all live makes the rest of us -- including a lot of other Muslims -- scared and nervous.

But when people actually and genuinely act on Christian beliefs, most of the rest of us get quite scared and nervous too. We had a national headline generating example of that right here next to my home town yesterday.

It seems that this group of a dozen or so people were dissatisfied with their Christian church and left to form their own religious community. Yesterday, they left behind cash, deeds to their property, cell phones, and bunch of other material possessions, and left letters saying goodbye to their loved ones and family members, telling them to be glad because they would all be in heaven soon.

Reading this, there seems little room doubt what they were going to do -- kill themselves, Jonestown-style, for some absurd religious reason. And probably try to take the children with them. Their spouses, families, and friends were quite panicked. So the police, appropriately, put some urgency on looking for them before exactly that could happen.

Now, as it turns out, they were found in a local park in a remote part of town. They were praying against immorality in general and, according to them, premarital sex in particular. The leader of this group (some have called them a "cult" but let's not split hairs over what that word means exactly) denied that she had any children despite the fact that two of her children were right with her.

Well, now, what exactly were these folks doing if not following the teachings of their religion?  Didn't Jesus command his followers to forsake their material possessions to be true Christians?  These folks walked away from their money, their houses, and a variety of other material possessions -- to go pray in a public area so as to prevent other people from having consensual sex.  Didn't Paul the Evangelist rail against the corrupting influence of sexual activity, and indeed haven't those writings been interpreted as demanding celibacy by not just these but a wide variety of Christian sects?  Didn't Jesus command his followers to leave behind their families so as to become true Christians -- and that's what it sounds like these folks did, denying their family relationship with even their own children when questioned by the authorities.

They were waiting for an imminent apocalypse, which is prophesied in the Bible. They expected that when that event happened -- and that it would, very soon in the future -- they would be taken up to heaven, and their belief in that set of future events appears to have been deeply sincere to the point that they acted, precipitously as it turns out, on those beliefs.

You might say, well, they picked and chose some teachings to follow and some other teachings to ignore, and the ones they picked and chose were the wrong ones. I don't know about that. Seems to me like if you're going to take Christianity seriously, you've got to take all its teachings seriously. That means that you've got to believe that the apocalypse is going to happen any day now.You've got to believe that your family, friends, possessions, and other attributes of your present life are only going to get in the way of your salvation and you're better off walking away from them all right now. That means that your life on this earth is meaningless and all that matters is preparing yourself and as many other people as you can for the next life.

It means, in other words, doing what these folks were doing: acting literally on instructions found in a collection of writings more than 1900 years old. It's hardly a wonder that, when it comes to matters of life and death, responsible adult people set aside their "respect" for the religious beliefs of others and activated the Search And Rescue squadrons. Law enforcement, appropriately, considered the validity of these religious teachings only to the extent necessary to educate their searches for where innocent people might be very much in harm's way. With the lives of children in the balance, no one said, "Well, that's what they believe and we just have to respect that," because it would have been patently unreasonable to do other than what they did.

This is because, when religion is taken seriously, it is a very dangerous thing and deep down, we all know this to be true. Here, religious fanaticism motivated a dozen people to do things that absolutely convinced their families and friends and law enforcement that a mass suicide was going down -- and although this story has ended well (as least for now) I tend to think that this was a very prudent suspicion indeed. Even though the leaders of this group deny that they had any sort of harmful intent towards themselves or anyone, they clearly have a warped understanding of what "truth" is (denying their own children), what objective actions are or are not tolerable, and thus ultimately, what "good" is.

It's all to easy to believe that these folks were indeed on a short path to self-destruction. They really believe in heaven and they really want to go there. That's scary stuff. That's the harm I see coming from literal or next-to-fanatical adoption of religious teachings.

Nice people who instinctively stop acting on their religious beliefs when doing so becomes socially unacceptable are not the targets of my epistolary venom. It's the crazed fanatics that scare me, and the whole world now knows that there are some crazed fanatics right here in California's high desert.

6 comments:

Mike said...

I feel I must point out: according to Muslims, the "greatest example" of a perfect man is their "prophet" Mohammed, who should be emulated by his followers.

Nevermind the fact that he was a violent, misogynistic rapist and pedophile with delusions of sultanhood.

Compared to being Islamic, what these women did is fairly minor.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

Agreed -- so far as they went. Had they not been caught, it still seems reasonable, based on their written messages and erratic behavior, to think that they would have murdered their own children and then committed mutual suicide. We need not quibble as to whether child murder is worse than child rape; both are obviously abhorrent.

While Muslims say out loud that they strive to emulate Mohammed, just as Christians say out loud that they strive to emulate Jesus, Muslims are, statistically, no more violent or prone to pedophilia than adherents of Christianity or any other religion. This is surely because, like Christians, they reach an understanding (perhaps unconsciously) that they should opt for morally tolerable behavior as opposed to literal adherence to the teachings of their ancient, nonsensical and morally indefensible holy book.

It is when they lose that ability to cognitively dissonate between actually acceptable behavior and what the Koran tells them to do, and thereafter act upon the teachings of their holy book seriously, that they become scary and worthy of fear. It is not Islam itself, but rather the fanatical gloss placed by fanatics upon it, which appropriately inspires fear in the rest of society.

Mike said...

It is when they lose that ability to cognitively dissonate between actually acceptable behavior and what the Koran tells them to do, and thereafter act upon the teachings of their holy book seriously, that they become scary and worthy of fear.

Look at what is deemed "acceptable behavior" in most Muslim nations, and the problem becomes clear. You cannot judge the religion by the behavior of its stealth infiltrators who come out to Dar Al-Harb, what they call "the domain of war," practicing taqiyya to convert and infiltrate the kafir.

It's their behavior inside of Dar Al-Islam, where women are beaten, raped, murdered, where underage forced marriage is all too common, where female genital mutilation is commonplace, where the law basically doesn't even acknowledge the idea of rape existing. Look at how hard it is to prove under traditional shari'a law: four male muslim witnesses to the penetration required to prove a rape: muslim women and non-muslim men count as "half" a witness, non-muslim women count as one-fourth of a witness).

mythago said...

Christianity is an apocalyptic, supercessionist religion which morphed into an authoritarian institution; of course it's scary.

Mark said...

I agree that religion has the potential for turning dangerous. But I would say that when you cherry-pick quotes to follow without any consideration for context or interpretation, you end up with weird stuff.
Did Christ command people to leave everything and follow Him? Yeah, when He was here. Once He left, He told His disciples to go and teach and be good workers and good parents and upstanding members of society in order that the world would see good works and glorify God. What these people did was a blight on Christianity. They took a couple verses out of context, pretended to be following Christ, and then acted foolishly, against what the Bible really calls us to.
But the truth is, any philosophy can be dangerous when taken in the wrong hands. Some people take atheism to its extreme and see a life without purpose and meaning and decide to end it (and some take others with them in the process).
So as a Christian, I have no problem calling these people you mention out as fools who don't know their Bibles. They're not following what God has actually written. It seems like you're giving them the benefit of the doubt that their application of Scripture is reasonable, when any believer who truly studies the Bible, even at a basic level, knows it's not.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

I appreciate your thoughts very much, Mark. It's really great to read a thoughtful Christian perspective. One point you raise suggests a comment:

...the truth is, any philosophy can be dangerous when taken in the wrong hands. Some people take atheism to its extreme and see a life without purpose and meaning and decide to end it (and some take others with them in the process).

Agreed, at least in theory; I've long said that the real danger is fanaticism.

To quibble, I'm not aware of any atheists so angry and nihilistic that they have actually taken human life as a result. The closest thing I've heard of was that guy who tried to shoot up the Discovery Channel recently, but his apparent atheism does not seem to have been a motive so much as a bizarre conglomeration of political ideas.

Certainly such a thing is possible, though, and it requires little strain of the imagination. Were an atheist to engage in an act of murder to "advance" the "cause" of atheism, he would earn my moral condemnation (above and beyond the already-high level of condemnation which I would award to any murderer) along the lines of "You know that this is the only life any of us ever get, and you chose to destroy precious, irreplaceable life that way?"