Extremists are the Tail of the Dog

The Charlie Hebdo shooting that resulted in the death of twelve people is big news for the moment. Part of the coverage I have seen, heard or read about centers on how the gunmen are not true practitioners of Islam. I disagree.

The gunmen do not represent all Muslims, but they are Muslims.

I hear the same thing said by Christians regarding hate groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church not being true Christians. I disagree.

The Westboro Baptist Church does not represent all Christians, but they are Christian.

I hear the same thing said about Catholic priests who have been caught in child sex scandals not being true Catholics. I disagree.

The Catholic priests are not representative of all Catholic priests, but they are Catholic.

In all of these cases, and many more, the extremists of the religion are not representative of the average members of that same religion. The overwhelming majority of Muslims do not commit acts of terror. Many Christians do not support the Westboro Baptist Church. Few Catholic priests are pedophiles.

There are members in every group who represent an extreme of some sort. Some of these extremes are embodiments of the worst in humanity, and some of these extremes show us just how wonderful we can be to each other. Muslims, Christians, Catholics, Hindu, Jews, Buddhists, and the members of all religions have their extremists. Both the good ones and the bad.

Atheists are no different in this regard. We have our extremists as well. Some are people that I look up to, and others say things that make my skin crawl in repulsion. Yet if an atheist commits a horrible crime I would never say “Well that person is not a true atheist.”

That just would not make sense. You are an atheist if you do not believe in gods. Whether you are a noble and good person or a disgusting monster of a human being does not change the fact that you are still an atheist. The only way that I can claim that another person is not an atheist is if that other person declared to me that they believe in a god.

With the practice of any religion we do not have such a clear cut way of knowing if someone is truly what they claim to be. The reason is simple for this: all religions are rituals practiced in support of a mythos. Since all mythos are fictions to begin with then either no one belongs to any religion, or anyone can claim to be a member of any religion that they wish to belong to.

Whether or not every member of a religion actually follows the teachings of the religion is irrelevant. Religions are centered upon a mythos, and anyone can interpret a mythos however they please to do so.

So when an extremist commits a horrible act in the name of a religion you may be able to argue that the extremist was not a very good practitioner of that religion, but you cannot simply exclude them from that religion. You cannot chop off the tail of the dog and claim that the discarded appendage is from another type of animal. That cognitive dissonance that results from the discomfort of realizing that bad people can belong to your sacred religion will not go away through dissociation.

If we want to prevent another tragedy like the Charlie Hebdo office shooting, and put an end to homophobic groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, and never have another child abused by a Catholic priest again the solutions will not come from dissociation. The solutions will come from owning these problems. These solutions will come from religious organizations admitting that they have people of evil in their ranks, and that those evil people worship the same gods being preached about to the rest of their followers.

Maybe then these religious organizations will admit to the harm that they can cause. Maybe then these mythical fictions will stop being spread. Maybe then we’ll start to see more real change for the better in this world.