Monday, April 29, 2013

This is the Religion of Guns

Sam Harris, in the The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, has famously argued that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists. He argues that religious tolerance has crippled our ability to criticize the central and basic tenets of religion. Harris rails against a kind of religious relativism, one that purports that all religious claims are somehow equally valid, when it is more than apparent that they are not.

I have to confess that I'm not convinced by his argument. Certainly obscurantist language and fuzzy metaphorical thinking cloud easy access to to religious claims, making them sometimes impervious to rational criticism. Religious extremists may borrow arguments from moderates and use them as an excuse for violence, but so what? Arguments are borrowed and warped all the time. Darwin's elegant theory of evolution was borrowed and warped by eugenicists, the ideas of socialism were borrowed and warped by Stalin. The actions of of later zealots in no way call into question the veracity of these ideas: Evolution and Socialism should be judged on their relative merits, not on how the ideas are warped by violent extremists.

If religious moderates insist that their central tenets not be criticized, we should feel free to ignore them and criticize anyway. Religious extremists might try to pass laws against blasphemy, and they very often do so with the consent of the larger base of "religious moderates," or so goes the theory. I disagree. Anyone who argues for or supports laws against blasphemy, with legal penalties built in, cannot be considered a moderate. They are by definition religious extremist theocrats.

It's not your beliefs that make you a religious "moderate" or "extremist" it is how you choose to act on those beliefs.

There is a religion prevalent in the United States right now that can be held responsible for a startling bloodbath. In the United States, an average of 18 people die each day because of this religion. This year this religion will cause vastly more death and destruction in the United States than Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and every other common religious identifier combined.

I'm talking about the religion of Guns.

The difference between God and Guns is that Guns are real. God isn't. God doesn't kill people. People with Guns kill people. People with Guns are extremely effective at killing people. God, not so much.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Reverend Jerry Falwell said, "“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen,'"  

Falwell may have apologized for these statements later, but his central point remained:

In order to prevent future religiously based attacks like 9/11, we need more God, not less.

Compare this to the NRA's reaction to Sandy Hook. The solution to our Gun violence problem is not less Guns, reasonable restrictions on Guns or even the slightest hint of regulation. The solution is more Guns.

Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, famously said, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a Gun, is a good guy with a Gun." His solution was simple: Provide Guns and training to armed guards at every school in America.

There's even a joke about this:

Q. How many NRA members does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. More Guns!

The term for religious moderates when talking about Guns is "responsible Gun owners." (RGOs) Commonsense laws that might restrict an extremist from getting his hands on a Gun, we are told, unfairly penalize RGOs. RGOs enjoy hunting and recreational shooting and plan for the day that they will have to use their Guns to either defend the United States against an enemy attack or defend themselves from an United States government gone bad.

RGOs oppose limits on the type of guns they might want to own. One man I saw at a Rhode Island State House Gun Rally held up a picture of the Johnston Rhode Island SWAT Team and said that he wouldn't feel safe unless he owned all the same equipment that the SWAT Team owned. People in the crowd approved of his message. Was this man really planning to battle the Johnston, Rhode Island SWAT Team? Of course not, but he wants to pretend that if such an unlikely event were to occur, he could indeed effectively defend himself against a rogue government.

Just as many extremist religions have their own version of the apocalypse, where the world is warped and ruined and only faith in God and a particular ideology can save us, so do those who believe in Guns have their eschatology. It focuses on a Chinese invasion, or on a corrupt liberal/secular government herding white people into concentration camps. That these scenarios are vanishingly unlikely is beside the point. Common apocalyptic dreams unite the RGOs.

All the guns in the world won't stop an Obama predator drone or a bunker buster bomb from laying waste to your stockpile of weapons. The only reason Waco style standoffs between citizens and the government last as long as they do is because the government tries to avoid killing everybody inside the complex, not because those inside have state-of-the-art Bushmasters.

The Holy Book of the Gun religion is the Second Amendment, and just as modern religions pick and choose which parts of their Holy Books to highlight and downplay, so do the RGOs display bumper stickers emblazoned with "The Right to Bear Arms" even as they conveniently overlook the part that talks about being "well regulated."

Just as Sam Harris's "religious moderates" aren't really moderate, so are RGOs not really responsible on the issue of Guns. RGOs are Gun extremists who value their hobbies more than they value the safety of our schools and cities. RGOs engage in fantasies about self-defense and apocalyptic, world ending scenarios rather than engage with real world issues and concerns. RGOs, in opposing efforts to curtail gun violence, enable ever greater predations on our society.

Just as a belief in God allows many to create a fantasy that keeps away the existential fears of an uncaring universe, so does the belief in Guns allow many to keep away the fear of being assaulted or overpowered by people and societies they do not understand.

This is the Religion of Guns.

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