In response to a noticeable number of recent articles and social media posts I’ve been getting; asking some permutation of the question “why does this religion believe/do/espouse this terrible thing?”, I feel the need to reiterate an important point.
Let us not forget that religion is distinctly emergent from the people who practice it. Religious beliefs are not just imposed upon individuals from authoritative organizations (though this is a role not to be ignored, certainly), they are also principally constituted, negotiated, and re-imagined by the interactions, motivations, and desires of their adherents and in this way, are also influenced by other cultural systems such as politics, economics, and identity. Erasing the agency of the actual human beings involved in a religious system only leads to feelings of powerlessness, both for believers and for their critics. It is people who pick which verses to quote, which words to give weight to (or to redefine), which meanings to make and to build on, and which practices will speak to them over any and all others available. This is why scholars of religion continuously point out that there is no such thing as an “inherently violent” or “inherently peaceful” religion. It’s not about essence, it’s about use.
What is really at stake here is the question itself because the question “Why does this religion believe this terrible thing?” already presupposes the kind of answers it is going to get. The answers such a question will prompt will be that of “this is what is wrong with that religion.” The question we should be asking, again knowing that religion only emerges from its adherents, is “why are you using religion to promote injustice?”
If you have a racist and homophobic group of Christians, it should stand to reason that you will see among them a racist and homophobic version of Christianity. If you have an impoverished group of Buddhists who daily experience war and violence and blame their neighbors for it, it should stand to reason that you will see among them a militant and ethnically-divisive version of Buddhism. And if you have a group of Hindus who are deeply engaged in building a new nation and a new identity following the economic and political collapse of a colonial past, it should stand to reason that you will see among them an overly nationalistic, exclusionary, and politically fearful Hinduism.
Of course, this is only one part of the equation and there are multiple factors at play in any circumstance of religious cultural work. To be noted, religion is a wide and variable system and not all adherents, denominations, or traditions succumb to fear, hate, and injustice nor do they promote violence or isolationism. But that doesn’t change the fact that the question begins with people. It always begins with the people. If you want to know why someone spouts religious hate or clings to religiously-motivated violence, don’t ask them why their religion makes them hateful and violent. Ask them why *they made* their religion hateful and violent.
Outside of the realm of religion specifically, we’re seeing a similar issue with race relations in American media as well. To wit, the implication that white voters have been “hoodwinked,” “scammed,” or in any other way “tricked” into voting for politicians who are openly racist, bigoted, misogynistic, or who put forth agendas of personal enrichment or Christian dominionism (Ok, see, religion is really never far from the fold). This is erasure of intent and agency is dangerous. These voters haven’t been tricked. It isn’t that they aren’t aware of the policies their candidates back. They voted for them intentionally. This is the world they wanted and yet somehow, we’ve not yet been able to attach the systems of inequality and prejudice that we see to actual individuals. This is a failing of rhetoric in the utmost.
We can talk endlessly of dismantling systems or resisting institutional biases but we will get nowhere until we start seeing the maintenance of these systems within ourselves and within our neighbors. Perhaps the greatest irony in all this is then that the stereotypical Liberal has met the stereotypical Conservative. It’s all about personal responsibility….in ending the hate.