NOTE: DUE TO THE SENSITIVITY OF THE TOPIC, CHANCES ARE THAT I WILL BE EDITING THIS BLOG ENTRY A FEW TIMES OVER THE NEXT DAY OR SO. BEAR WITH ME.
The recent, socially and politically complex nightclub shooting in Orlando has prompted a whole load of anti-religion rhetoric. And justifiably so, sort-of: most recent analogous shootings — Dylann Roof notwithstanding — have been performed by people who claim to adhere to a certain religion: Islam. Since there is no reason for us to doubt someone's convictions and claims to follow any faith, we should not ignore or downplay it.. In the case of Orlando, the perpetrator, in his last act before the massacre, admitted his own Islamic religious angle himself. Religious identification is a common factor in the lives of people who perpetuate popularized violence in our worldwide culture today; I have no interest in trying to step around that fact.
However, saying "Muslims" or "Islam" or "religion" is the problem misses the mark by a wide margin. The religion isn't a problem on its own; a combination of factors is the problem.
If I have to identify with a belief system, I will admit that I am a secularlist. I see no need for religion in my own life or in the political sphere. In my experience, and through my reading, I've come to believe that religion in all its facets causes more problems than it solves. It misguides people; it promotes authoritarianism; it defies reason; it obfuscates social and personal development. Religion inherently creates arbitrary, evidence-free lenses that confuse people from a potentially clearer view of reality. I shed my religion in order to better understand my world, and for me it has worked.
But my fellow secularists like to point a singular finger at religion in situations like this, and I think that's also misguided. People are more complicated than their religious beliefs; culture is more complicated than religion, just as it's more complicated than economic factors. Pointing the finger at religion — or any other factor — creates a type of tunnel vision that misses out on the problem as a whole: that humans are animals living a far more complex lifestyle than any other animal has in the history of the world. We've made a real mess in our development as a civilisation and our brains haven't adapted as quickly as our societies have.
Humans need a lot of shit to thrive. We need support networks; we need stability around us; we need autonomy; we need a sense of belonging; we need to feel as if we make a difference in our world; we need to express ourselves; we need medication and therapy. In short, we need a balanced life, as far as we can get it.
And this can look like millions of different things. One balanced person might be a "pillar of their community" while another might be something more subtle. And it goes through changes over time and some people have to watch their balance more carefully than others.
There is one person in my life who found an explicit way to balance out her life: my sister. She struggled in normalized Western life. She was out of balance in the hectic expectations we place on young, beautiful women in our society. She battled with mindless, retail jobs and empathized with people to a degree that would seem to debilitate her. She struggled to maintain her religious identity in a world that expected so much of her time and energy.
But she was strong enough to do something about it, even though it was seemingly drastic.
She joined a convent in late 1997; she has been a nun for almost 20 years. There, she has found a way to live a life that seems as balanced as it can be. It has its stresses, but she found a place where she belongs, where she knows her place and role in the community, where she can make a contribution to her limited, but real world. Drastic move for a Baptist pastor's daughter? Certainly. But it was effective. Essentially, she saw a means to reach the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs and embraced it full force.
Considering the news that's come out about Omar Mateen — that he was prone to rage, that he abused his wife, that he had a history of threatening people, that he would get angry when drunk and would drink in the corner of the bar alone — I think it's safe to say that he did not have a balanced life. I wouldn't be surprised if some sort of religious thinking legitimised his personal hatred of homosexuality. I imagine he had some severe morbidity of psychological disorders. He was a mess of a person, out of balance on many, many levels. He clearly lacked empathy and compassion. And he had access to guns that could shoot bullet after bullet after bullet. This is so tragic that I feel snobbish and elitist even attempting to put it into words.
I'm not going to point at his religion and say "His religion made him do it." That's a gross understatement, just as it is when people say "It was a mental disorder" or "He was ostracised." There is a wide swathe of factors that contributed to this case of "homegown extremism" and "self-redicalization." I refuse to point at a finger at a single snapshot as if it could tell the whole story.
Some secularists might suggest that Omar Mateen was just fulfilling the "essence" of his religion. I've heard many secular activists say things like "The extremists are the ones who are actually practicing the religion the 'right' way." But there is no "right way" for something that's already baseless, already in their own heads. Nobody has a trump card on the "right way" to do something that has no foundation in the first place, neither those who claim the religion or those who criticize it. Successful religions are megamalleable: adaptability is the hallmark of any enduring idea — religious, political, social, or even personal. Religions that cannot adapt to the disparate ideas in people's brains die out.
And Omar Mateen adapted his religion too, just like everybody does. Through his own hateful, distorted lenses, for his own purposes, he killed. His religion was just a part of his already distorted, hateful, mindset. But it was not the cause. It was merely another factor among many, a rack on which to hang his hatred, disillusionment, and insecurity.
Besides, which religion would we blame anyhow? Islam? Or perhaps his internal religion of masculinity? or of hatred? or of honor?
It's just too messy to pinpoint.
To put it another way, if you're a secularist who wants to blame all of this on Omar's religion, or if you're a liberal who wants to pin it to his psychological disorders or family history, and you don't take the whole picture into account, you're no better than the guy who's saying that this happened because Obama let him.
We will always have imbalances in our world; we need to do our best to give everybody a chance to find their centre and balance in their own lives. Our culture's incessant focus on capital and growth thrives on instability, but we — as human being animals — don't.
And when we create a shifty, careless culture and then give people access to handheld, legal WMDs, we pay a terrifying price for this cultural instability.
When we mix religious ideas, politics, and psychological disorders or imbalances, we have a recipe for serious instability. All of these ideas are just that — ideas. And ideas are only real in the minds of people, and they're fluid and dynamic, and they create the mindsets and lenses by which we see the world. All these abstract layers of ideological blame are as unsteady as standing on a top-heavy Jenga tower, assembled on a trampoline.
I think that's what I appreciate about Obama's speech embedded below: he captures a level of pragmatic empathy that I believe is truly admirable in its forthright care for people.
UPDATE JUNE 16
This morning's diatribe on The Scathing Atheist drives this home from a different angle.
And Thomas at Atheistically Speaking also had some interesting conclusions:
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