God, after all, is not the problem. Self-righteous, fearful and ignorant followers of any religion willing to employ death as a tool of faith, as a measure of the depth of belief, are the problems. There is no institutionalized Western religion exempt from the historical fact that some of its adherents became zealots prepared to kill themselves and others for their ideology.
Regardless of the circumstances and the faith, those men and women (or, most horrific, children) who choose death, or whose death is inflicted upon them, are exalted as martyrs. As long as co-religionists continue to see these acts in a positive light, there is little chance of building bridges across chasms of isolated, religious tribalism.
Several weeks back (April 26), I wrote a column suggesting we replace fear and loathing with understanding and tolerance. I also referenced Arizona's Foundation for Inter-Cultural Dialogue and its principle of "respect for all humanity."
How such a column, intended as it were to promote benevolence, could become a catalyst for several readers' venomous e-mails remains a depressing mystery. Indignant contempt from irate readers comes with columnist territory, but this time, it became mildly depressing when I realized some readers were far more interested in pillorying me and hurling their narrow hatred than engaging in a civil exchange of viewpoints.
After being accused of suffering from "liberal nonsensical indoctrination," one reader referred me to Wafa Sultan. I can only blame my troglodyte tendencies for my previous ignorance of Sultan.
Once I read Sultan's damning condemnation of Islam, I concluded her screed would earn an "F" in any college course dedicated to critical analysis. On the other hand, a well-reasoned and civilly argued piece by Hesham Hassaballa commenting on Sultan at the altmuslim.com Web site (dated March 13, 2006) doesn't get the media play generated by Sultan's anger.
For that matter, how many consumers of American media (myself included) are even aware of sites such as altmuslim.com? News flash: There are intelligent and thoughtful Muslims; there are Muslims who can engage in critical thinking; not everyone who prays to Allah wants to turn the planet into a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy where women are stoned and young men dream of jihad.
Another reader accused me of "relentlessly" mocking and criticizing religions over the years, and "christianity" (sic) in particular." I don't quite know what to make of this e-mail since the reader claims to have spent 30 years studying the religious history and theology of all major religions, including Native American beliefs and Eastern religions. Whew. I wonder what translations he used, or if he has a thorough grounding in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Latin and Chinese, just to name a handful of the languages one would need before being able to play this particular expert card.
Still another reader took me to task for allegedly comparing Masada to "savages who pack their bodies with explosives" in order to cause as much "pain and death as possible." In fact, my column did not make that comparison. What it did do was point to traditions of martyrdom people honor as examples of bravery.
By exalting those traditions (in whatever religion), by using them as evidence of long-standing suffering in the face of persecution--rather than seeing them as tragedies--the willingness to die becomes more valued than the willingness to live in the face of adversity.
Confronting life's struggles is a braver act than opting for the final escape. Choosing death over life is a victory for despair, a triumph of hopelessness and a mockery of any religious belief claiming to trust God's will.
Imagine the possibilities if martyrdom were seen as evidence of irrational behavior carried to its extreme: madness. If dying for one's beliefs, or country, or (fill in the blank), were stripped of palliatives such as honor, nobility, bravery or sacrifice and reduced to what it really is--death in the service of an idea--maybe, just maybe, we might conclude ideas are not worth dying for. And that was the point of my column. Our ideas, those annoying, illusory beliefs we are so attached to, keep us from understanding that we all share an essential, mysterious human nature, one capable of the most heinous acts as well as the most tender.
Any religious tradition connecting us to something larger than ourselves ought to also help us realize we are all in this together.