Different targets, the same enemy
Different targets, the same enemy. Benguhan/Shutterstock

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Though I neither can nor want to refute what Charles wrote about the tricolore flag on the Space Needle and on everyone's Facebook avatars, I would also like to point out that identifying an insufficient response is not the same as arguing that there should be no response at all. These attacks (and I mean all of them) are reminders—which many of us evidently needed—that Rudyard Kipling was wrong about East and West. The twain met a long time ago, and the point of intersection is, of course, religious extremist terrorism.

Like everyone, I had a strong desire to say something about Paris (and Beirut, and Nairobi), but found myself torn between the even stronger desire for myself and everyone else to shut the fuck up for five seconds, and the conviction that any verbal response to these attacks—no matter how insightful they might strive to be—would get swallowed by the morass of beside-the-point bullshit being served up by social media. Between being scolded for not having cared sooner about Beirut and being insulted by exhortations to #prayforparis, that whole conversation seemed impossible to enter meaningfully.

Then I remembered that I already had written something about these attacks, 13 years ago, on October 12, 2002, when they happened in Bali.

The fact remains that the victims were not targeted at random, or for merely political purposes. They were doing exactly what any of us might be doing on any night of the week: exercising a liberty so deeply offensive to religious believers as to constitute blasphemy. And the punishment for blasphemy is death.

There is an ongoing lie in the official governmental position on the war against terror, which bends over backwards to assure us that, in the words of our president, "we don't view this as a war of religion in any way, shape, or form." Clearly, in every sense, this is a war of religion, whether it's declared as such or not. And if it isn't, then it certainly should be. Not a war of one religion against another, but of reason against religion—against any belief system that takes its mandate from an invisible spiritual entity and endows its followers with the right to murder or subjugate anyone who fails to come to the same conclusion. This is the war our enemies are fighting. To pretend we're fighting any other—or worse, that this war is somehow not worth fighting, on all fronts—is to dishonor the innocent dead.

I don't think I would have to change much about that article to make it apply directly to the events in Paris, aside from maybe lightening up on the proto-Internet Righteous Voice tone, and transposing a few proper nouns.

You can spend as much time as you like decrying the order in which your social media algorithm surfaced them, but the attacks last week in Paris and Beirut (once known colloquially as the Paris of the Middle East), and last April in Nairobi—to name but three—are united by their status as acts of mass murder committed proudly in the name of religious conviction. You can call it misguided religious conviction or extremist religious conviction if you need to, or protest that the vast majority of religious people don't commit mass murder, but such arguments are no longer useful. They are like the N.R.A. telling us that most people with guns never kill anyone. True enough, but it doesn't make the guns any less lethal.

It's time to renew our commitment to discrediting the idea that religious faith is valid or defensible. It's time to be openly disdainful of the idea that one religion is more or less dangerous than any other. It's time to treat god the way we treat guns: As a threat to civilization. You can't outlaw faith (nor would I ever want to), and you can't stop it with sanctions, drone strikes, or boots on the ground. You can however, fight it with reason, and two other elements that have been in short supply in this discussion: love and respect. It will take generations, but it can happen. Erosion, by water, wind, ice, and waves is one of nature's most powerful forces for both destruction and creation. Without it, an ecosystem can't survive.

People like to quote the mighty Medgar Evers when discussing military reprisals to terrorism. But "you can kill a man, but you can't kill an idea" is only applicable when the idea in question is just. In fact, you CAN kill ideas—ideally, with better ones. But, as Facebook and Twitter will gladly tell you, lazier ones will also do the trick.

Though they are aberrant acts, violent terrorism, fascism, and murder are also logical extensions of any philosophy that turns on the premise that life on Earth is less meaningful than that promise of everlasting life in heaven. But that premise is only credible when life on Earth is made intolerable. The scholarly writer Reza Aslan has emerged as something as a religious apologist on cable TV, which is a pity, if an understandable one when you're up against dipshit demagogues like Bill Maher; still, Aslan's book Zealot frames the emergence of Christianity as a response to the enslavement of Jews by Romans—in the absence of any hope, or any power, or any agency, they turned to the only fantasy that was available. It's a powerful and persistent framework for rebellion, even if everything about it is just smoke and mirrors. But if its adherents are going to be held accountable to reason, then so should Rome.

Though prosperous societies prefer to remember the more fragrant line about opium, Marx was a lot closer to the mark when he called religion "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions." That's why religious terrorism is religion unshackled, distilled, weaponized. You can't tolerate one without expecting and enabling the other.

I hope we can get together on changing the conditions that allow this to keep happening.

To do this in a meaningful way will require atheists to get real about our arrogance—which has justifiably alienated people since the historic mobilization of the atheist movement that followed 9/11—and stop pretending that Big Shari'a is just some big monolith of Wrongness, as if the conditions of extreme poverty, social injustice, and institutionalized racism spreading from the West are not massively to blame for the pervasiveness of religious conviction around the world. The idea that "they hate our freedoms"—though clearly they do—is incidental. They hate our encroachment on their basic dignity far more. This gap needs to be closed before there will ever be any real movement towards the worldwide abandonment of the lie of religion, and the hellish reality it unleashes on all of us—believers included, maybe even especially—every day. That's part of why Charles's original post is worth defending, and part of why it demanded a follow-up.

The lines in Kipling's "The Ballad of East and West" that follow the one about East being East and West being West "and never the twain shall meet" aren't cited nearly as often, but they invest the scenario with a bit of very welcome hope:

"But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!"