An Insatiable Appetite for Human Misery

Brussels was less than a week ago, and it’s already the third* deadliest bombing in that brief timeframe. The horror of that statistic overwhelms me. Since then, ISIS have killed at least 41 at a football stadium hosting a boys’ tournament in Baghdad, and a Taliban splinter group have killed at least 72 in a park in Lahore, murdering mainly mothers and their children.

After Brussels, the response from political opportunists was swift – see Ian Paisley Jr. MP hastily blaming immigrants for what transpired to be an attack by Belgian nationals (he blocked our Twitter account when we asked for evidence of his claims), or more recently Donald Trump’s fear-mongering against the whole of Europe.

Unsurprisingly, an appraisal of Paisley’s Twitter feed since then features no mention of the bombings in Baghdad or Lahore. His concerns appear more parochial.

The war of words on social media is incessant – some are blaming all Muslims for these attacks. Others are excusing Islam and Muslims. The truth lies somewhere in between; some Muslims did murder Belgian commuters, Iraqi boys and Pakistani mothers and children because they believed it was their holy duty to do so. That is was not a form of Islam Shaykh Umar al-Qadri recognises is neither here nor there; it is a form of Islam.

As atheists, we are interested in how beliefs inform actions. Many religious people argue that religion can lead to great acts of compassion, kindness, charity and bravery. That may well be true, but if belief in gods can inspire people to good acts they wouldn’t otherwise do, it follows it can inspire bad acts they wouldn’t otherwise do, as I tweeted below.

The alternative is that if people are good or bad anyway, then religion is superfluous – it’s just an excuse. As Stephen Fry said, speaking in this case of the Catholic Church, “then what are you for!?”.

It is true that the Abrahamic faiths, in particular, contain some abhorrent ideas and a history of violence, and we encounter the prejudice, intolerance, bigotry and anti-intellectualism they generate on a daily basis. This is not to say I consider every person who harbours irrational, supernatural beliefs, often quite notionally and inconsistently, as potentially dangerous. The vast majority of people of every faith and none are, individually, good people. People find a way to cherry-pick and navigate their way through their own religious or ideological landscape well enough that, for much of the time and for most people, it doesn’t cause a problem.

This brings us to the extremists. I attended the British Academy debate in Belfast recently which asked the question “Is true religion always extremist?”. I foresaw two issues with the title alone, and was proven right – the panel struggled to define what “true religion” and “extremism” actually were. In the video below (volume is low), I argued ‘true religion’ is an oxymoron. I would also argue extremism is fundamentalism unrestrained by respect for human rights. Citing the example of the Jains, I suggested that it was not fundamentalism per se that led to violence, but the violent fundamentals all the Abrahamic religions are replete with. Innes Bowens responded that most religious people are pragmatists, which is to say not fundamentalists. This doesn’t contradict what I argued – it is the combination of fundamentalism and the limits of the ideology that combine towards violent extremes. On the panel, Professor John Brewer was in agreement that fundamentalism has been given a bad name, and Tehmina Kazi, the only Muslim on the panel, was the most willing to point out that there were, indeed, some ugly things in Islamic scripture.

When extremists commit prejudiced acts or atrocities, there are often cries from the non-violent members of the same religion, if perhaps not the same interpretation, that they are not True Muslims or True Christians. I’ve yet to receive a satisfactory answer to what the minimum criteria for membership are.

Any ideology which does not have human rights embedded as a core principle carries the grave risk, perhaps the inevitability, that its most avid adherents will violate human rights to protect it and its institutions. We have seen this in almost every major religion and secular ideology; oppression of women and abuse cover-ups in the Catholic Church; shunning of apostates by Jehovah’s Witnesses, or harassment of the same by Mormons; imprisonment, torture and execution for blasphemy in theocracies like Saudi Arabia or Iran, or for deviant thought or speech in communist states like China or North Korea; imprisonment and killing of LGBT people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to human rights abuses, religion and its frequent bedfellow nationalism lends itself to segregation. In Northern Ireland, we know to our cost how sectarian hate divides people and empowers extremists. Having just had the centenary commemoration of the Easter Rising celebrated by masked men on our streets, and the usual bitterness and sniping slung back and forth on social media, it feels like nothing has changed.

In a pluralist society, it is difficult to maintain the myth that all of ‘the other’ are bad people, because the evidence to the contrary is all around. This is why some of Northern Ireland’s own leaders are so reluctant to encourage integrated (not just shared) education, mixed social housing etc. Their power comes from antagonism and blaming of ‘the other’ to deflect from their own failings. To expect them to promote pluralist society is to expect turkeys to vote for Christmas.

ISIS are the logical extreme of this strategy. Iyad Al-Baghdadi (no relation to the ISIS leader!) posted this after the last Paris attack.

The ‘Grayzone’ is pluralist society. The extremists hate it because it destroys their power; their ability to separate people, sow the seeds of distrust, create a climate of hypocrisy which allows excuses and ‘whataboutery’ to be acceptable answers to violence. As a child of The Troubles, this is familiar territory to me.

After such a depressing week, I can only ask myself what I have learned? I’ve been deliberately slow to respond and restrained when I have. I know what hate feels like, and I know how easy it is. This is the biggest danger that the ideologues, the religious extremists and all the rest pose; they make it so tempting to become the monster, to hate, to feed an appetite that can’t be sated.


*The death toll of Brussels has been revised upwards of Baghdad now, and lies second. That we can arrange atrocities as a league table is just as horrific as my original point.

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