ONE of the great questions about humanity is the one that wonders why we believe what we believe.
Most religious beliefs are inherited and accepted by generation after generation without the kind of rigorous questioning that precedes far less significant decisions. Very many of us accept our parents’ religious beliefs with far less consideration than we would give to buying a new car. Such is human nature; the power of love, example and cultural security – peer pressure too – overcome doubt or the impulse to question.
Naturally someone who believes in something will insist that they believe in an idea because it is true even though others might consider it bizarre and irrational.
This kind of questioning may be only a few steps from wondering how many angels – if there are any – can dance on the head of a pin, but many of humanity’s darkest hours occurred when great belief systems collided. These differences have cost millions of lives and still cost lives every day.
The age-old conflicts between Christianity and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus, Jews and Christians, Pagans and Christians, Zionists and Arabs, recently communists and capitalists and the many other groupings that felt threatened or strong enough to threaten those who did not share their beliefs seem like an unavoidable, terrible consequence of being human.
Nine years ago today those who attacked New York’s Twin Towers were part of that awful tradition. As were those sincere Americans who blindly supported Noraid.
Terry Jones who planned to publicly burn a copy of the Koran to mark the 9/11 anniversary intended to make an offensive and incendiary gesture that has already cost at least one life. Imagine how many lives would have been lost had he proceeded with his moronic plan.
The riots that followed the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005 cost, it is believed, more than 100 lives and Jones’s intentionally provocative gesture had the capacity to be even more lethal.
Of course we are no strangers to religious hatred. Who can forget Ian Paisley’s rabid anti-Catholicism or the visceral bitterness and deliberate dishonesty of the divorce referendum campaigns. We may like to pretend that the post-independence pogroms against Protestants were localised but history contradicts that position.
The freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs is a hallmark of a civilised society; millions around the world are denied that right. The value of that freedom, so well expressed in the First Amendment of the American constitution, is sometimes challenged by extremists but freedom of expression is just that – the right to say what you believe to be true. Even if you are bonkers.
Terry Jones no more represents America and the West than the Iranians who would stone a woman to death on a spurious adultery conviction represent Islam. So, a great challenge in today’s world is to try to make cultures where freedom of speech is not revered understand that, occasionally, a Terry Jones or a David Irving will say or do something that is as offensive to the society that protects his freedom as it is to the society or religion they attack.
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