Last week, I was horrified to listen to the news reports of a man riding on our light-rail system in Portland, Oregon. He suddenly started hurling insults at two women who appeared to be Muslim, one was wearing a hijab. Three men intervened and the man stabbed all three with a knife. Two died and the third is recovering. The women were not harmed physically. We Oregonians like to think of ourselves as progressive. We have a high percentage of “nones” (those who profess no religious belief), we have a woman governor who is a Democrat, we tie for the highest number of women in leadership positions in our state legislature, we care about our environment, and we have taken advantage of the Affordable Care Act to expand access to Medicaid to the poor. In spite of these characteristics, there is still a segment of our population which is anti-immigrant, misogynistic, against helping the poor, and some are even active members of white supremacist groups. How can people hate others so much? Incidents such as the one that occurred last week bring this issue to the forefront.
Christopher Mathias, in a recent article in the Huffington Post entitled “The White Terror Crisis in Portland,” outlined the history of racism in Oregon. He is accurate. It is a state with a low population of minorities. Because of a history of segregation, many minorities are isolated in certain areas of the city of Portland and the state. Portlanders may not frequently encounter people who do not look like them. We did have a clause in our original constitution that banned blacks from living in the state. We did intern the Japanese in World War II. We did have an Ethiopian who was murdered by white supremacists in the 80s. I knew the mother of one of the young skin-heads who was convicted. She was a wonderful parent, but her son got taken in by their racist rhetoric.
Mathias correctly attributes the hatred of the murderer to Muslims. But he fails to recognize the role religion in general plays here. Why is this person anti-Muslim? Perhaps it is because he was raised in a Judeo-Christian religion that for millennia has taught its followers that they believe in the “right god” and that all the others are wrong. When religious doctrine teaches you that you are the “chosen people of God,” it often teaches you that those who do not believe in your god are going to hell. So why would anyone be charitable to them?
What can we do about this hatred? We, as atheists, need to speak out more about the real damage religion has done and will continue to do to our humanity. Imagine if no one believed in a supernatural deity who declared that their god was the only god. Would there still be hatred? Would there still be wars? Yes, but probably fewer of them. We might discover that we have more in common than we thought.
It is interesting that another aspect of the hatred of this murderer was a declaration he made: “This is not terrorism, this is patriotism.” While we will learn more about his motivation in the weeks to come, he told the women that they should leave “his” country and go back to Saudi Arabia. Suffice it to say that the rhetoric from Trump as a candidate has exacerbated the tension over immigration. How ironic it is for an American to hate immigrants from other countries. If you are not a Native American, you are all immigrants. My ancestors came from England, Wales, Norway, and Germany. We are all a mixture of different races and ethnicities. I even did my DNA and found out that I was 4% Neanderthal!
There seems to a growing opposition to a global view, but that is where we are headed. It may take 100 years or 200 years if our civilizations last that long and don’t ruin the earth for human habitation. Why can’t people realized that we fundamentally are all the same? We all came out of Africa, we all have DNA that contains evidence of this. Each civilization has developed on the backs of previous civilizations. Cultural reproduction introduces new concepts that are adopted and others that are not. I have written about the borrowing of other mythologies either from Canaan or Mesopotamia in the creation of the Old Testament stories. They are not unique, they are not the result of one person writing the Bible. They are the result of hundreds of years of writing, of changing ideas, of borrowing from other religions.
We need to speak out about the damage these narrow world views create. We need to point out the fallacies of believing in an Iron Age god. We need to point out the extremes to which people will go to harm others just because they are different. I truly believe that religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality and would further state one of the last barriers to a common humanity.
If you are an atheist, what can you do? You don’t have to write a book. You don’t have to start a podcast. You don’t have to write a blog. You just have to speak out. Speak out to your family. Speak out to your friends. Engage others in the conversation. If you are uncomfortable talking about your atheism with friends who are Christians or of other religions, buy and download the Atheos app. It can be found here. Developed by Dr. Peter Boghossian in conjunction with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, it will help train you in how to have these conversations.
Remember the following:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Karen L. Garst
The Faithless Feminist
June 3, 2017