By Douglas Anele
Sometime ago, I wrote an essay in which I identified the fundamental source of religious violence in certain passages of The Holy Bible and The Holy Koran. Specifically, I argued that some of the doctrines, injunctions, and commandments in the two scriptures, if interpreted and followed strictly, would necessarily breed intolerance and violence. I supported my “unpopular” thesis with several quotations from the two “holy” books.
The editor of the newspaper to which I sent the article refused to publish it. Instead he sent me a mail stating that my view was “judgmental.”
I was not totally surprised by his reaction. Since Iran’s spiritual leader, late Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa on the Indian novelist, Salman Rushdie, and the increasing tempo of violence and vandalism carried out by religious fundamentalists against individuals, organisations and countries they accuse of blasphemy and disrespect towards their religion, the prophet of that very religion and its “sacred” scripture, media houses in Nigeria especially have been very reluctant to publish essays critical of religion, no matter the soundness of the arguments marshalled to buttress such a critical standpoint, but are willing to celebrate the inanities and superstitions of religious orthodoxy.
The pusillanimity of editors in this matter is quite understandable and, within certain limits, appropriate. Mentally deranged religious fanatics are very eager to kill anyone who challenges the fundamental tenets of their faith. Therefore, editors are very careful so that they would not be victims of fundamentalist reprisals.
Aside from threat to life, zealots are ready to destroy any media outfit that publishes “blasphemous” essays on religion. The wave of violence and destruction by Islamists in several countries to protest a film they considered blasphemous to the Muslim faith is a telling reminder that religion is a very sensitive issue concerning which the faithful are prepared to kill and destroy to maintain its alleged purity.
That said, it must be observed that capitulation to the threats and bestiality of religious fundamentalists portends a serious danger to human civilisation as we know it, because it means surrendering our humanity to a bunch of misanthropes. Fear and suppression of well-reasoned opinions which contradict religious dogmas actually encourage extremists to perpetrate greater evils, thereby exacerbating the dangers posed to global peace and progress by religious intolerance.
In my view, believers with more benign moderate views about their religion should be encouraged to speak out against religious fundamentalism. For example, Islam is supposed to be a religion of peace. Unfortunately, peace-loving Muslims who constitute a vast majority of the followers of Prophet Mohammed, SAW, have allowed a relatively small band of extremists to dent the reputation of their faith.
Here in Nigeria Muslim scholars and clerics are not doing enough to propagate the benign doctrines of Islam: they seem satisfied with blaming bad socio-economic and political conditions for spawning Islamic extremism.
Of course poverty, unemployment, and feeling of alienation towards a “heartless” society contribute to the problem. But that is not the whole story: exclusivistic monotheistic religions whose doctrines are contained in “holy” books tend to breed intolerance and discrimination in their adherents against people with different beliefs for fear of contamination.
For peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic country like ours, it is very important for the faithful to tolerate differences in religious beliefs, or even unbelief, by emphasising those parts of the “holy” scriptures that preach peace, love, forgiveness, mercy, oneness of humanity, and freedom from religious compulsion.
At this point, let me address the allegation of being “judgmental” in my view that numerous passages in The Holy Bible and The Holy Koran promote intolerance and religious violence. The term ‘judgmental’ is derived from the word ‘judge,’ which has several meanings. In the context relevant to our discussion, “to judge” means “to compare facts in order to ascertain the truth: to form or pass an opinion: to decide: to estimate: to conclude.”
Consequently, to be judgmental means to do any of the things listed above. In most cases, when someone or an opinion is described as “judgmental,” what is usually implied is that the person or opinion so described is subjective in the sense of expressing, or being an expression of, personal likes or dislikes of the person who made the judgment rather than fidelity to relevant facts.
Clearly, the editor that rejected my essay on the scriptural basis of religious intolerance insinuated that my opinion was subjective – he failed to notice that his own reaction was judgmental too! Well, epistemologically speaking, we are always judgmental whenever we decide, conclude, or form an opinion on any issue whatsoever.
Thus, mathematicians are judgmental in deciding that Pythagoras theorem about right-angled triangles is correct; physicists were judgmental when they concluded that Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is better than Newton’s theory; majority of biologists were judgmental when they reached a consensus on the superiority of Darwin’s evolutionary theory vis-à-vis creationism.
From the foregoing, it is wrong to interpret “being judgmental” as “being subjective” or as “allowing one’s likes and dislikes to supersede facts.” As rational, knowledge-seeking creatures, we must always pass judgment concerning the truth and falsity of propositions; we must reach decisions regarding the epistemological status of our beliefs. Being judgmental does not necessarily mean that facts are ignored or sacrificed for the sake of personal bias and prejudices.
It simply means that the opinion expressed is discussable, justifiable. Unfortunately the editor, in failing to publish my essay, deprived readers the opportunity to debate an issue which has assumed a dangerous dimension in the life of every human being on the planet, that is, the ever growing possibility that hatred, violence and destructiveness stemming from religious fanaticism and intolerance may lead to the destruction of human civilisation as we know it today.
Inasmuch as the need for safety is paramount, we should not always cringe with fear and anxiety because of the barbarous conduct of fanatics; we cannot hand over the world to lunatics simply because of their proneness to destructive behaviour.
The best way to confront and defeat religious extremism, aside from ameliorating skewed socio-economic conditions that breed poverty, unemployment, and feelings of alienation and disillusionment – which means creating a humane society is to use every available means to spread enlightenment, tolerance and the critical attitude. The media, as the gadfly of society, cannot shirk its responsibility in this regard simply because of obsession with safety.
The widespread attitude of treating religion differently, with awe and respect as if it is beyond the cannons of ratiocinative scrutiny and evidential support before a statement is accepted as true, which is the norm in other domains of discourse, is totally unwarranted. After all, believers and unbelievers alike are equal stakeholders in the preservation of our planet and sustenance of human civilisation in the spirit of tolerance, love and solidarity.