(Warning: normally I refrain from expressing my views on religion out of respect for my friends who are believers, but in light of the events in France yesterday, my views are central to this piece. Stop now if your faith is easily insulted.)
The biggest threat in this world, the one I have pushed against most of my life, is that of extremism. It comes in many forms, but the common denominator is intolerance for other people’s lifestyles or beliefs. On January 7, 2014, twelve people who worked for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were gunned down by two Islamic extremists because the magazine had insulted their invisible man in the sky. Around the world, others who believe in different invisible folks in the sky saw this atrocity as proof of the superiority of their totems. Extremists to the left used it as an opportunity to once again renounce gun violence, while extremists to the right made sure to point out France’s restrictive gun control laws. Both sides, so convinced of their own divine authority of knowing THE one right way, missed the point: Intolerance ultimately leads to destruction.
Rather than galvanizing civilized people into a collective mass, this latest tragedy is further proof of just how fragmented and intolerant we truly are. Just this morning, the first item to appear in my Facebook newsfeed was a post ridiculing Al Gore because it’s cold over much of North America this week. The ignorance and short-sightedness of confusing weather and climate never cease to amaze me, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. Within minutes, this person’s post had filled with followers, either piling on with more insults for the 97.5% of climatologists who believe climate change is a real thing and man made or questioning the original poster’s intelligence. Per usual with these kinds of discussions, there was no dialogue, no discourse, no exchanging of ideas, just a further entrenching of deeply held beliefs.
Even though I am pretty much a non-believer – especially in religion and specifically in invisible men in the sky who want cartoonists murdered – I’ve always tried to be respectful of other people’s beliefs. After all, that’s what tolerance is all about, allowing other individual’s the right to worship or not as they see fit, to love the person they want (as long it’s a consensual relationship), and to view the world through whatever prism they deem appropriate. The scope of this tolerance ends when one person decides to impose their beliefs on others involuntarily. In free societies, you do not have the right to impose your will on someone else against their own will. This message applies to the extremists on both sides. In light of this most recent tragedy, I see little hope for bridging the gulf of extremist intolerance.
We as a species are heading for a major conflict if we do not find ways to communicate with each other instead of at each other. Because of the unimaginable power of the weapons we possess, our survival as civilized societies is at stake, possibly even the survival of our entire species. And I have no idea how to fix it at this point. I see no way to convince believers that our actions as people are not preordained by the will of whichever invisible person in the sky they worship, and I see no way to get the extremists on the other end to respect the right to believe. I fear the consequences of this steady march towards a worldwide war, because that is what we are approaching, and if this war ultimately erupts, it will be unlike anything humans have experienced before because of the deep fragmentation we have created and those weapons we possess. While little internet arguments over climate change may seem innocuous on the surface, the dehumanization of “the other” is just a symptom of that terrifying disease of intolerance.