No, religion is not all sweetness and light

At the time of writing, it is not clear if that strange little man in Florida, or the strange little man in Kansas, or some other strange little man somewhere, will go ahead with a much-discussed plan to burn a stack of Korans. But a few things are certain.

One, this is something only a strange little man would do. Two, this is something that only a strange little man who is religious would do. Three, if a strange little man goes ahead and burns a stack of Korans, many people who share that strange little man’s religiosity, but not his religion, will be angry with the strange little man and will express their anger by bellowing, rioting, smashing, burning, and generally behaving like jackasses. Four, the jackasses will shout “God is great.”

And, five, all this will happen on the anniversary of a terrorist attack carried out by men whose last words were, we can be sure, “God is great.”

Does anybody see a connecting thread here?

No, this will not turn into a red-faced tirade against religion. It is rather a red-faced tirade against the childish unreality of how polite people discuss religion in public.

“My God and my Christ is a tolerant God,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted on Thursday, “and that’s what we want in this world.” Chris Bentley, attorney general of Ontario, went further. “The proposed burning of a Koran should be of concern to all,” he wrote on Twitter. “Faith appeals to and inspires the best in us.” Michael Ignatieff echoed that theme. Burning the Koran “runs counter to the mutual respect and tolerance at the core of all faiths.” This is religion as described to a toddler by Mr. Rogers. Which is not to say it’s false. There are indeed many passages of beauty and gentleness in what believers consider to be holy books, along with profound exhortations to decency and tolerance. And they have indeed inspired many people to live with a humane and open spirit.

But there is considerably more to religion than that.

“For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death.” That’s Leviticus 20:9. So it seems that the next time my son curseth me because I tell him to turn off his video game, I must kill him. And that’s just the first of a long list of similar commandments. Unruly children. Adulterers. Homosexuals. Put them all to death immediately. “And if a man shall lie with a beast, he shall be put to death,” Leviticus 20:15 says. “And ye shall slay the beast.” Which seems most unfair.

Of course anyone who has ever spent a little time slogging through the Old Testament knows the savagery of Leviticus is all too typical of a book in which the killings outnumber even the “begats.” God not only sanctions war, genocide, slavery, bigotry, and blind obedience to authority. He commands it. And the faithful comply. The Old Testament is a cavalcade of cruelty and any blogger who wrote stuff half as nasty would be slapped with a hate speech charge.

I know, I know. The New Testament has superseded all that, Christians respond. You can’t hang that on us. (Naturally, they are never so unkind as to note the implications of this argument for Judaism, the first of the Big Three religions.) I find this defence dubious, not least because, at several points in the New Testament, Jesus says all the old laws remain in force and will forever. It’s also not terribly reassuring to hear believers say, in effect, “look, God used to be a genocidal psychopath but he’s better now.” But, most importantly, this argument ignores the fact that the New Testament, although a considerable improvement thanks to the gentle and forgiving figure of Jesus, is not entirely devoted to peace and love because Jesus, we are told, won’t always be gentle and forgiving.

“God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,” Thessalonians says, “… when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” The Book of Revelation has lots more like that. Wrath and retribution. Rivers of blood. Nasty stuff. Fundamentalists love it. They fantasize about it. The Left Behind novels — filled with graphic descriptions of Jesus annihilating unbelievers — have sold more than 60 million copies.

But, if vicious descriptions of the horrible fates awaiting unbelievers is your kick, be sure to get an unburned copy of the Koran. “I am with you,” God is said to have told the angels, “so keep the believers steadfast. I shall instil terror in the hearts of the unbelievers, so smite above the necks and smite off every fingertip.” Then things get really ugly for unbelievers. After death, the Koran says, “they will be the inhabitants of the Fire, abiding in it forever.” Sam Harris made a list of all such passages in his book The End of Faith. It goes on for pages.

The Koran also has good advice for how believers should deal with unbelievers, “the most vile of beasts”: don’t. “Do not take close aides or friends except believers, others would never miss any opportunity of exploiting any weakness of yours. They only desire your ruin, rank hatred has already shown itself from their mouths, and what their heart conceals is far worse.” Not a lot of mutual respect and tolerance there, I’m afraid.

Of course religions can evolve. It is true, for example, that most Christians do not support the immediate execution of all homosexuals and very, very few would think it appropriate to kill a man who had carnal relations with a sheep. Or kill the sheep. That’s progress.

But, even if religions evolve, religious texts don’t. The language of brutality and bigotry is still there, in books said to be holy. Surely it is not surprising that it can still inspire suspicion, hostility, and division, or that, every now and then, some strange little man will read it and decide to burn a Koran or picket a gay man’s funeral or fly a jet into a skyscraper.

It’s true that religion can inspire the best in us. But it can also inspire hate and madness.

This is a fact of enormous importance, if only our leaders had the courage to say it.