To those with religious belief, faith — the idea, the commitment — may remain a mystery but one that is nonetheless enthusiastically and sincerely embraced.
To those without religious conviction, the idea is equally mysterious and most non-believers, the civilised ones anyway, adopt a live-and-let-live attitude.
Belief or disbelief is not usually, in most of today’s world, a divisive issue. It can be, but most believers and non-believers, again the civilised ones, can be united in incomprehension and horror at the savagery religion can provoke in those opposed to one religion or another.
The murder of 49 people while at prayer in New Zealand mosques in Christchurch — what an ironic name in this sad context — is the latest manifestation of this irrational, unfathomable poison. That it happened in New Zealand, a country regarded as sane and peaceful, seems to make the outrage all the more chilling. If this atrocity had occurred in Detroit or Boston instead of Christchurch, the world would be outraged briefly but we would shrug our shoulders and wait for America’s next self-inflicted gun tragedy. The setting of yesterday’s massacres is almost as unnerving as the outrage.
The attacks, described by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days” were carried out, in part at least, by Brenton Tarrant, 28, from Australia, who apparently described himself as an “ordinary white man” who “decided to take a stand”. He was named in reports in Australia as the gunman who appeared to have live-streamed the attacks on Facebook as he shot victims.
How that live-streaming might encourage other unhinged fantasists is another reason to assert more control over free-for-all social media. Social media, however, made one minor positive contribution. A Christchurch motorist filmed police making an arrest and broadcasted it on social media.
The familiarity, the ordinariness of the setting — it could be Rochestown, Rathmines, or Dooradoyle — is a sharp reminder that we would be unwise to imagine ourselves immune to attacks of this kind. After all, we have a volatile and not entirely settled history of religious conflict on this island too. Recent unease over the repatriation of Isis supporters to Britain and Ireland adds to that debate too.
Ireland has many positive connections with New Zealand — adopted Kiwis Joe Schmidt and Bundee Aki will give their all for Ireland in Cardiff this afternoon. Indeed, many of those who left this country long ago to make new lives in Aotearoa — though they would not have called it that — did so to escape religious conflict. How sad it is, then, that others, our contemporaries, paid the ultimate price for their religious beliefs, some of them perhaps having moved to New Zealand to escape conflict in their country of origin.
In recent times, there has been much discussion about the radicalisation of young Europeans by Muslim extremists. These murders show that we must confront the radicalisation of young white men by nativist right-wing forces too.