The Australian Government is going to pass some legislation this week which further restricts the rights of its citizens, in the name of the war on terror. The legislation is bound to be passed, as we have been informed that it has been endorsed by our spy agency and the federal police, those intrepid defenders of all that is good and worthwhile in our great society - such as not being held in custody without being charged and being allowed to go about one’s private business without being spied on. I expect to discuss these new laws later in the week. On this occasion however, I want to make some remarks on a related issue, namely the recent comments by the Phillip Jensen the Anglican Dean of Sydney on Islam. He said, more of less, that IS is inspired by Islam, and that without Islam, there is no concept of a caliphate, a territory that transcends traditional state boundaries and organised in accordance with traditional Muslim law, something that is the stated aim of IS. That is surely true. The usual view of the matter, here and elsewhere, is that Islam is not a set of doctrines that licenses actions such as those of IS and that one must separate the former from the self-serving interpretation given by the latter and by other jihadi terrorists. I am not so sure. Islam has a long way to go before it catches up to the Christian religion as an ideology that justifies war, killing, rape, theft torture and repression, but it is well on the way. Let’s reflect on this a little.
A belief system that offers a better way of life has the potential to be used for coercion and manipulation - the better the way of life, the more potential. Indeed, if one were to try to think up the most potent system for getting people to do exactly as one wants, it is hard to go past the Catholic religion. This promised eternal life, of one or other of two main forms: heavenly or hellish. Which particular path an individual was to take, election to heaven or damnation to hell, was largely in control of the priesthood. There could be nothing better than going to heaven and nothing worse that going to hell: these are the polar extremes of the imagination. Hell is the worse place there could be, and the damned are there for ever, beyond all hope. Heaven is eternal bliss, all wants and needs satisfied for evermore, and so there could be nowhere better. If people could actually be convinced that there is a heaven and hell, then the overriding aim in life will be make sure one avoids the latter and ends up in the former. Nothing could be more important and hence anything is justifiable if it achieves this end. For instance, the intention behind the practice of burning heretics to death by the Spanish Inquisition was for them to be saved ‘as yet by fire’. To experience as they died a small taste of hell and so with their last thoughts to recant and so be saved. Taking a charitable view of the motivation of the Inquisition, if the Dominicans who ran the show truly believed that this was the only way to save heretics from damnation, then it would have been their sacred duty to burn heretics to death. To save a soul from damnation, any measure is justified.
I am an atheist for various reasons, one being that I cannot understand how any supreme being would wish to create creatures who are given life in order to be tested to see whether they deserve reward or punishment in an afterlife. So for me the wars, killings, rape, etc., that have been carried out in the name of religion are simply crimes against individuals and most especially crimes against humanity. And that goes for the killings and rapes that are being committed by IS. I assume that IS motivates its followers by appeal to a particular reading of the Koran, one that justifies war, murder and rape. I assume that suicide bombers are motivated by the belief that they will go to heaven or paradise as a reward. I cannot see why else these people would do what they do, for what the do is hardly natural. Without the belief system, which gives unity to the group, motivates them and justifies their actions, there would be no IS. It may (well) be that the leaders of this group are cynical manipulators who do not believe what they preach, who realise that they are distorting the message of the Koran or who simply do not believe it at all. The same, no doubt, has been true of many Christian warriors. But the point remains that without the belief system, there is no basic underlying source of motivation. Islam is necessary for IS – the Anglican Dean of Sydney got that right. The view I incline to is that these belief systems are so apt for generating extreme behaviour and total obedience that this is their very rationale: the reason these religions exist is solely for the ends of coercion and manipulation. They are literally empty and false.