If there's one thing I view as a major problem in our world, right up there in the top ten of the most dangerous things we have to face, it's religious extremism.
Any form of extremism is dangerous. When thinking gets "locked" with no wiggle room, no exceptions, no tolerance, and above all no compassion, it never goes well. Never.
When it's based in religion, i.e. justified by having a big scary God as its authority and cheerleader, it's at its most dangerous, because of the fear factor. If the authority is a human, no matter how much of a tyrant he is, there is always a chance of escape, of him being overthrown, of him simply not noticing dissidence. But a God? Not only does he know all, see all, but his punishments aren't restricted to torturing you to death. Oh no. He can even punish you you after you're dead. And keep going!
So, his thugs, aka "True Believers" often get themselves into positions of power.
Although....I'm never really sure, to be perfectly honest, whether these tyrants are ultra religious, or just using the faith of others to get to the top. It's impossible to tell. But it doesn't really make any difference to those suffering under their command.
What is clear is that regular people, who commit atrocities when they catch the extremist bug, have been influenced by something. One assumes it's belief, because it defies explanation otherwise. A suicide bomber has to be sincere, he just has to be.
If we are going to talk about religious extremism it's important to know what it is we're talking about. It's very important, right at the start to specify that it makes absolutely no difference which religion we are referring to. All religions have laws about basic ethics such as not killing one another. And any one of them seems to find a loophole in that when it suits them. There are no exceptions here. Great harm done to its own believers (randomly, or because they break rules), or non-believers (followers of other beliefs, or none at all) has been done by every religion, at some point.
This has led, quite understandably, to a complete rejection of religion by many. Others choose to simply convince themselves that their own is not guilty, or at least less guilty. While others acknowledge harm in the past, or "only by extremists", and concentrate on not being that way themselves.
Some are so disgusted by the oppression of religion, that they seek a new oppression, one that prevents religion, thereby denying believers the opportunity to practice their religion the way they want to. While I confess to not having a quick solution to it all myself, I fail to see how competing oppressions solve anything, and if you were to successfully do away with religion, other tyrannies would rise.
No, what we must do, as a species, is learn tolerance, somehow. We have to just keep chipping away at that. It isn't going to happen overnight.
So, what is religious extremism?
It is a madness. It begins with the belief that your chosen religion is the right one, and that the others are wrong, false, heresy, or whatever. It then requires that something is done about non-believers. They cannot be ignored. What is to be done with them? Well, there's a sort of sliding scale there.
Consider the different levels of religious attutude:
1. Believes all religions serve the same purpose, can't therefore choose one, follows none, and has simply a spiritual sensibility.
2. Believes all religions serve the same purpose, chooses one for himself, but dabbles in others.
3. Believes all religions serve the same purpose, chooses one for himself, and enjoys interfaith dialogue.
4. Believes his religion is the right one for him, is interested in others, and enjoys interfaith dialogue.
5. Believes his religion is the right one for him, and is respectful of other beliefs, but avoids them.
6. Believes his religion is The Right One, but keeps his opinions to himself.
7. Believes his religion is The Right One, and never shuts up about it.
8. Believes his religion is The Right One, and tries to convince everyone to join it.
9. Believes his religion is The Right One, and pushes hard to convert others, using any non-violent means possible.
10. Believes his religion is The Right One, and is willing to kill others to convert them.
Where is the danger line?
As soon as people stop talking to one another, the problems begin. Lack of communication causes two things, ignorance and distance. And by distance I don't mean miles. It could be somebody who lives next-door to you. If you don't get to know them - talk to the kids, invite them to your barbecue, compare petunias - regular neighbour stuff, then that distance can allow you to see them as different, as "not like me". You can read all the books you like and think you've covered the ignorance, but unless you recognize them as fellow travellers, it becomes easy not to care, not to see harm done to them, not to want to stand up to injustices against them. It makes them invisible.
And if you squirm at the idea of being neighbourly towards those who are different to you, I think you need to ask yourself why. Take a good hard look at your rationalizations here.
Because religious extremism at level #10 doesn't just arise suddenly. It is either sometimes you are taught from birth, or something that you lower yourself into, gradually. And it is optional.
We are always taught that the slippery slope is a fallacy, and it often is, but in this instance it can often be very real indeed. It is very, very easy to slip down this list, and the way to stop it is open communication. You don't have to agree. Sometimes you just can't. That's just how it is.
But you can always find commonalities. Basic human values. Concentrate on those.
Then of course, there's this: