|Sébastien Mamerot, Second Battle of Ramla, from Les Passages d’Outremer (1475)|
Last week, a “gun-toting atheist” and self-proclaimed “anti-theist” killed three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There’s some question still about whether the killer was motivated by atheism or some other motivation. What there’s no question of is that much of the secular response was predictably tasteless and exploitative. For example, the Daily Beast’s Suzi Parker responded with an essay on how hard it is to be Muslim “in the most religious—and Christian—part of the country.” How are Christians to blame for this one, again?
CNN’s response was perhaps worse, lumping the Chapel Hill murders in with seven other attacks as examples of “religion’s week from hell,” blaming the attacks on the “religious violence” that either “is fueled by faith or is a symptom of larger factors.” There’s been a lot of talk lately about so-called “victim blaming,” and it’s something of a nebulous term, but I think that blaming religious people for an atheist murdering them probably constitutes victim blaming.
The Chapel Hill murders have upset the popular “religion is what makes people violent” narrative, and both the Daily Beast and CNN’s response amounted to shutting their collective eyes and repeating the “religious people are bad” mantra. So let’s talk about that narrative: is it true that religion is the main cause of violence in the world? Or if not all violence, what about terrorism? Or if not all terrorism, what about suicide bombings?
In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris tries to lump “religion” in with “terror,” pitting the two against “reason.” He opens with this story:
The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The bus is crowded and headed for the heart of the city. […] The young man smiles. With the press of a button he destroys himself, the couple at his side, and twenty others on the bus. […] The young man’s parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment. They know that he has gone to heaven and prepared the way for them to follow. He has also sent his victims to hell for eternity. It is a double victory.
At this point, he hasn’t told you the man’s religion (although his inclusion of Heaven and Hell in his story conveniently exonerate atheists). He then asks, rhetorically:
Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy, “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy,” to guess the young man’s religion?
As I’ve mentioned before, Harris wants you to guess Muslim, an answer he claims is “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy.” But there’s just one problem with this claim, which is that it’s factually incorrect. Worse, Harris knows this, but buries that fact in an endnote:
Some readers may object that the bomber in question is most likely to be a member of the Liberations [sic] Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the Sri Lankan separatist organization that has perpetuated more acts of suicidal terrororism [sic] than any other group.
So if you bet your life on the suicide bomber being a Muslim, chances are, you were wrong. And the Tamil Tigers aren’t just the deadliest in regards to suicide bombings. They’re the deadliest terrorist group on earth, period. You can check out the numbers for yourself at the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database or Periscope’s summary by group. Since 1975, the Tigers have killed nearly 11,000 people, and wounding nearly 11,000 more.
If you’re not familiar with the Tamil Tigers, here’s how the Library of Congress describes them:
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) strongest of Tamil separatist groups, founded in 1972 when Tamil youth espousing a Marxist ideology and an independent Tamil state established a group called the Tamil New Tigers; name changed in 1976.
The University of Chicago’s Robert A. Pape, whom Harris cites in the endnote, is even more direct:
“Religious fanaticism does not explain why the world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a group that adheres to a Marxist/Leninist ideology.” Marxist-Leninist groups are hardly what you’d call “religious.” Here’s what Lenin had to say about religion:
The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism, which has fully taken over the historical traditions of eighteenth-century materialism in France and of Feuerbach (first half of the nineteenth century) in Germany—a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion. […]
Religion is the opium of the people—this dictum by Marx is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion. Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.
So the deadliest terrorist group in the world, and the one responsible for the most suicide bombings in history isn’t just a secular group, but one advancing an ideology that is “is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion.”
Nor are the Tamil Tigers an isolated case in this regard. The 25 deadliest terrorist groups in the world are responsible for most of the terror deaths since 1975. And the Tigers are just one of several Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, and Communist groups on that short list. They’re joined by Peru’s Shining Path, El Salvador’s FMLN, Colombia FARC, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the Philippines’ New People’s Army, Angola’s UNITA, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), Spain’s Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), and Chile’s Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (FPMR).
Maher: “Someone once said: to have a normal person commit a horrible act almost never happens without religion. To have people get on a plane and fly it into a building, it had to be religion.”
Douthat: “I think that what’s true is: to get a normal person to commit a crazy act, it does take ideas, right? But those ideas can be secular as well as religious. A lot of normal people …”
Maher: “But mostly, in history, they’ve been religious.”
Douthat: “Not in the twentieth century. Not in the Soviet Union. A lot of dead bodies there, not a lot of Christians… except among the dead bodies.”
Maher: “I would say that’s a secular religion.” (Maher then quickly shut down debate before Douthat could respond.)
I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can’t be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people—the best people, the most enlightened people—do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.