It takes a lot to drive us, and to give us permission, to kill our fellow humans. Testosterone helps: murderers are overwhelmingly male. Feelings of anger will help us get there if they are particularly strong, as in outrage against a perceived slight. But most of all before we can kill we need the ideas that make it right to kill, and all right to kill. We need an ideology that permits and justifies it.
Religions, based as they are in baseless fantasy, and so endlessly twistable to serve any purpose, have been great at providing the necessary backing for mass murder. If we take the Charlie Hebdo cover from left to right: the Jewish religion, with its fantasy of a god who tells Jews to kill Palestinians and occupy their land, has provided ideological backing for decades of terrorist- and then state-organised murder and theft on a grand scale. Not content with killing thousands, the Jewish god gives his backing to the daily humiliation and hostile subjugation of the ones left alive. Christianity will claim to have done less of it in recent years, but in the past provided the necessary backing for crusading armies to invade the Middle East and kill the locals, and in living memory supported both sides in two world wars. Some loving god there. Also in the relatively recent past the Christian god instructed different sects to burn each other alive. Just 300 years ago the authorities in Scotland hanged a student for, among other things, questioning the reality of the supposed virgin birth. (I have news for Christians: Mary was inseminated in the usual way. Let us hope that it was enjoyable for her. Perhaps it was John the Baptist that did it – a charismatic preacher and an impressionable young girl, an oft-repeated story). And more recently, Islam has given the requisite ideas for 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London and now the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, as well as many other murderous attacks across the Middle East.
Of course it is not just religions that do it. Revenge can be cloaked in the ideas of western films, as with George Bush invading Iraq, ideas with wide appeal in American culture and therefore useful for masking more sinister motives (intense greed for oil and for dominance) and whipping up public support. And joining in murder can be justified by the most ghastly self-serving hypocrisy, as with Tony Blair, with his crawling subservience to power. Of course the Christian god was a willing recruit in backing the invasion of Iraq; all it took was Bush and Blair to pray together.
Without irony one of the justifications offered for the invasion of Iraq was that democratic countries do not invade other countries, so we democratic countries are invading Iraq to make it democratic, so that it will no longer be a risk to its neighbours. Perhaps Bush and Blair were tacitly recognising that they were rendering their own countries non-democratic in their rush to war. Invading someone else’s country shatters the potential for a fertile middle ground — shatters the potential for democracy. Imposing democracy through invasion is not a sound project.
For Stalin it was the dictatorship of the proletariat necessitating the murder of critics and many other groups. For Mao the benefit of being led by the party under his chairmanship made the murder of critics and millions worthwhile. For Hitler purity of race justified the murder of critics and people not of that particular race. For Johnson defending freedom necessitated killing Vietnamese in large numbers, though living in a democracy he could not kill American critics. For Boko Haram and Isis various words of a man who fought wars many centuries ago justify murder today on a vast scale.
The Vietnamese were lucky in one respect: the ideology available to them was not a religious ideology but an ideology of political resistance, which is usually less toxic than a religious ideology and pollutes minds with less persistence. Stalinism and Maoism killed on a truly vast scale but they have been transcended. Only the religions persist, ready to justify murder again.
So it echoes on through history as we make it. If Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, had not been invaded, would 7/7 and Charlie Hebdo have happened?
Murderers are criminals and should be treated as criminals, not soldiers or political leaders or representatives of a race or religious group. Dangerous criminals need to be locked up and helped to understand the error of their ways. If you believe in a fantasy of god yourself, you are not in a good position to help someone get free of their own fantasy of god.
A common theme through the religious ideologies especially is that women should be kept in their subservient place. Who knows, if we shared airtime and leadership with them, they might not let us kill so readily. So we’d better not let them show their faces or become bishops or eat sacrificial meat and so on and so on and so on. God forbid that they should be free to express their sexuality: they might not choose us.
We need to speak out against the idiotic and baseless religious (and political and racist) ideas that can justify murder. Religions do not deserve respect: they need to be challenged, shown up, dismissed. Their hypotheses are rubbish. There is no god; the idea of god is a very very bad hypothesis. Reality is much more complex and wonderful than that. And murder is not justified. And we need to keep our leaders under control, whatever their fantasy gods tell them.