In the aftermath of the Woolwich murder of Lee Rigby, it is apparent that all sides of the political spectrum are torn as to where we go from here. The solution, as far as progress is concerned, is very simple: we must defend the freedom of Muslims like anyone else’s, whilst moving society away from religious influence.
There can be no justification for violence of any kind against Muslims; these are people just as deserving of respect as anyone else. People have a right to believe what they wish, and as much as we may disagree, we are morally bound not to attack those with whom we disagree. This is the basics of our modern civilisation and we lose the strongest principles we have if we violate it. Indeed, freedom is something our ancestors (and our modern day soldiers) are trained to fight to their deaths to protect. We do the memory of Lee Rigby, in particular, a great disservice if we ignore freedoms like these.
This does not mean we must like what religions do, or stay quiet about it. As you can see, I certainly don’t. There is absolutely no doubt that Islam and Christianity are outdated concepts from a period of history which science has moved us on from. Bombing abortion clinics, burning witches at the stake and killing in the name of Allah are all acts which can and should all be removed from our societies. But progress toward a more civilised society does not include physically attacking those who hold absurd beliefs; rather we need to foster an environment where reason and evidence hold the foremost role, and where the mythical and magical are, at best, personally held beliefs rather than morally guiding ones. Terrorism does not happen because no one fights back (we have waged entire wars to fight it, remember, with little success), it happens because we accept that magical and untestable beliefs are acceptable ways of forging moral rules.
We must also recognise that the reaction of the political right wing (groups like the English Defence League) are not the only ones in the wrong. The actions of their supporters in condemning people based on race or nationality are absolutely out of place and must be fought against. However the political left are also to blame: from this sphere comes a constant apology on behalf of religious violence, and a rhetoric that those religious people who properly understand it do not turn to terrorism. This is as ignorant and incorrect as any EDL remark, as religion is not a game of correctly grasping facts and attitudes. Religion is about believing things out of ‘faith’, with no evidence, in order to give yourself answers to questions which absolutely can not be answered. A Muslim killing someone in the name of Allah is not ‘misunderstanding’ Islam, as Islam is a religion like any other – it is about ‘faith’ and personal interpretation.
The way to fight against this violent threat in society is not to apologise on its behalf and try to make people see non-existent peaceful ‘facts’ in religions where there are no facts at all. Neither is it a good method to violently attack a large number of people who believe similar religious ideas to those who commit the murders. Rather we must argue against the untestable moral beliefs of religion themselves, whilst educating people on the benefits of rational, evidence-based inquiry and debate. We can remove from religion from society, but we are never justified in ignoring the humanity of religious people.
For further reading on the logical problem with untestable ideas, a good start would be the late Sir Karl Popper’s wonderful ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’. To learn more about how religion fails in tests of reasonable evidence, please take a look at Victor Stenger’s ‘God the Failed Hypothesis’. Finally, to see what an entirely rational idea of morality looks like – one not based in spirituality at all – please check out my book ‘Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong’ which is due for release on 14th June.