I have some thoughts about religion. They are just thoughts, and I believe they are reasonably good thoughts, or I would not be writing them down. But they are still just thoughts, and I don't want them to be attacks, or even defences - if they are not expressed as well as I hope, I apologise in advance. It's not easy to find the right words, it's not easy to be the person one wishes to be at the best of times - anyone who says otherwise is lying to you. But the reason I write these thoughts down is not to campaign or argue or call anyone or anything out - I'm writing them down because it's frustrating to keep them inside, and I'm writing them down because it makes it clearer to me what they actually are.
I am not a fan of religions. I don't think there's any good reason to believe their stories, and I don't often think very kindly of their impact on the real world.
But that real world is one I live in, and it's a world full of religion, and full of religious people, and I know a lot of those religious people, and no matter how nuts I might think their various religions are, it'd be incredibly foolish of me to place their religious beliefs ahead of who they are, what they do, the imprint they leave on the world.
And the fact is mostly they're good, and they're kind, and even when they're not all that good or kind they're usually just ordinary blundering humans like we all are. And they surely think my total lack of belief in any gods is as mad or madder than I think their beliefs are.
So I can't follow any line of argument that says the way to judge a person's character is to ask them which holy book they invest their faith in. Even if there are bits of that holy book that horrify you.
But what I do believe, and I've gradually come to this belief over a lifetime of observation, is that a person's religion is not a club they join, it's a belief - or an identity - they carry inside themselves, and every religious person is committed to their own, often intensely personal, version of the faith.
In other words, you can never assume that you know what someone believes because they give their religion the same name as someone else whose beliefs you've looked into.
You could ask Fred Nile what a Christian is, and listen to all he has to say, and accept that what he told you was true, and the next time you met someone who called himself a Christian you would be almost totally wrong about what he believed.
Sometimes that argument is put in terms of "who's the REAL Christian?" Is Fred Nile the true Christian, or was Pastor Fred Phelps, or is Father Bob McGuire, Mother Teresa, Ann Coulter, Tim Costello, Kanye West?
Who among them follows the true Christianity?
Maybe they all do. We speak of "extremists", "militants" and "moderates", as if everyone under the same religious label is following the same religion, and the only difference between them is how strong their belief is.
But what if that's not the difference? What if the difference is that they're not members of the same religion in the first place? What if Fred Nile and Father Bob McGuire are both passionate, devout, committed Christians, but they are devout in two different faiths that happen to share a name?
This is actually not that difficult for we westerners to grasp, because we're quite used to thinking of Christianity in terms of different denominations. We don't expect a Catholic to think the same way as a Methodist, or an Anglican to think the same way as a Baptist, on everything, because we already have different names for the different sects. So it's not a huge leap to think of different Christians as belonging to different religions, or to put it another way, to different "versions" of religion.
Here in the west we don't have that same understanding of Islam: we're used to thinking of it as a monolith, and we tend to swallow the message that Islam is a religion with strict uniformity of belief.
And so when "extremists" tell us that they are being good Muslims by killing, and "moderates" tell us that Islam is a religion of peace, we who are not Muslims feel we need to make a choice of who to believe. So we see a passage from the Koran that seems to suggest killing is justified and we say aha! Islam must be a religion of violence. Then we see another passage from the Koran that seems to suggest killing is forbidden, and we say aha! Islam must be a religion of peace.
We get nowhere, because the reality is: Islam isn't A religion at all; Islam, like Christianity, is a whole bunch of religions, and some of them are so far apart from each other that they're barely even cousins.
I know Muslims. You probably do too. I know for a fact they don't belong to a religion that endorses terror and murder - I'm sure I would have noticed if they were going around doing that sort of thing.
And when I see people doing horrific things and claiming their religion endorses it, yes, I believe them. To think that the violence of the world is due only to religion would be absurd: to think religion is not involved at all would be just as absurd.
So who's the true Muslim?
Frankly, how should I know? I don't believe in their god, so I'm hardly in a position to opine on who he's smiling on. And it doesn't much matter to me.
But more importantly, I don't believe they're worshipping the same god at all. You can give your god the same name as someone else's god, and you can give the name of the religion based on that god the same name as someone else's religion, but saying that a god who wants you to slaughter and destroy is also a god who wants you to commit your life to love and generosity is, to my mind, ridiculous.
If I said, I believe in the god Bob, who wants me to shoot everyone I see in the face; and you said, I believe in the god Alf, who wants me to help the poor and extend the hand of friendship to all people; it's fairly obvious we are talking about two TOTALLY different gods.
Why would we think any different, just because the two gods had the same name?
This is why I'm troubled by talk of "moderates" and "extremists". It seems easy to alienate a person by telling them their faith is "moderate", because they believe in peace and acceptance. I know Muslims whose commitment to Islam is fierce and full-blooded, and completely compatible with a love of diversity, equality and freedom.
In short, the "moderates" do not differ from the "extremists" by the intensity of their belief, but by the very nature of their faith. And we who are not religious do not get anywhere useful by seeing Islam as a single religion in which believers are distinguished by greater or lesser commitment.
Instead, it's worth recognising that Islam, the religion practised by the Muslims we know and and love and live among and value as friends and colleagues, quite simply is not the same thing as Islam, the religion practised by the Muslims who gun down innocents and blow themselves up and behead their enemies.
You'll often see the repetition of a line that goes something like, "ISIS represents all Muslims the way the Westboro Baptist Church represents all Christians". It's true, but not because there is a neat line we can draw between "true" Christians and Muslims, and "false" Christians and Muslims. It's simply because knowing whose religion shares the name of another's tells us nothing about what their beliefs are, and how their beliefs influence their behaviour.
That a person's religion could be so hateful and diseased that it would inspire murder is a horrible thing. But I can tell if a religion is hateful by the way the person who follows it behaves. Likewise, if you want to know what any person's faith is like, don't ask them what it's called: get to know them - what they believe will be illuminated by the person they are.
In summary: I remain no fan of religions. I am saddened by the horrors done in their names. But if we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking good people are not good people, just because of what their religion is called, rather than what their religion IS, we can only worsen divisions, and forget who our friends are.