“To generalize is to be an idiot” (William Blake)

In the 1990s, there was a serial bomber in the USA named Eric Rudolph. Rudolph bombed abortion clinics, gay bars and even the 1996 summer Olympics. To escape the law, Rudolph took to the woods of North Carolina where he escaped capture for years, allegedly aided by his nearby family. He was even, rather depressingly, somewhat of a local hero in North Carolina. Rudolph was a Christian – He ascribed to Christian Identity which “elevates white supremacy and separatism to a Godly ideal,”. He was also nuts.

When all of this happened 20 years ago, no one condemned Christianity for Rudolph’s horrible actions. Not one word I that I recall anyway, no one thought that Christianity led him to it. He was crazy, poorly educated and a terrorist.

Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. McVeigh too was a Christian and big fan of the US constitution. In his own words (from a letter to his friends):

I have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I will….I have come to peace with myself, my God, and my cause. Blood will flow in the streets, Steve, Good vs Evil. Free men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves. Pray it is not your blood, my friend.

Timothy McVeigh was crazy and a Christian. Like Rudolph, I don’t remember anyone blaming Christianity as a whole for McVeigh.

This past week there were horrific killings in Paris, starting with the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris ending with 17 dead. The killers – the Kouachis – were Islamic Militant Muslims. They are also crazy. And there are people blaming Islam. From the extreme tweet of Rupert Murdoch:

Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.

To the somewhat more benign assertions which quote Steven Weinberg: for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

Which is just patently untrue – there were the Stasi, the Nazis, Chairman Mao – none of them were religious. Dogmatic, yes, religious, no.

I am no religious scholar, but I do believe in the rights of people to believe whatever the hell they want to believe. This is why I am a card carrying Democrat. I also absolutely believe that Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish whatever they wanted to – no matter who found it offensive or not. We have the right to free speech and we have the right to offend, not offend, paint our faces blue. We do not have the right to kill people. And while it is true that all of the terrorists I have mentioned, like serial killers, ascribe to a dogmatic code – in reality this has nothing to do with religion per se. These are just crazy people ascribing to a dogmatic code, because that is what psychopaths do. Son of Sam, the serial killer in the 1970s, who insisted he was told to kill people by the neighbor’s dog; he had a crazy, dogmatic belief too.

There is a discussion to be had about the rise of militants, this is for sure. With terrorism of this particular variety seemingly on the rise, we need to talk about why this is happening. But the best way to do that is not by picking the low fruit a la ‘religious people are crazy, that’s why’. This dismissive idea does nothing more than alienate people who are just as interested in avoiding mass shootings as anyone else. Generalizations of this kind kill open, informed discussion; turning us all into reactionary idiots.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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15 Responses to “To generalize is to be an idiot” (William Blake)

  1. Steve Jones says:

    There were surely plenty of things that have (validly) been blamed on organised Christianity in the past. The treatment of heretics and apostates, slavery and the entrenchment of privilege for example. . Of course the Catholics were prime culprits, but early Protestant strands were not exactly blameless (to put it mildly). There was plenty in the Bible (especially the Old Testament) which justifies all sorts of horrendous things

    Fortunately, the Enlightenment came along (I like to think as a logical consequence of the Reformation). Organised Church’s were humbled, sometimes by their own dissident offshoots (nods to various non-conformists).

    The point of this is that these individuals aren’t really representative of any organised movement (but see later), whilst the current strand of violent Islamic literalists are. They have armies, training camps. They can justify their actions through a particular reading of religious texts. It’s helped by those claiming these texts represent some unquestionable divine truth. Whilst (in Jacob Bronowski’s words), humans aspire to the certainty of gods, then horrors will emerge.

    Incidentally, I don’t see a hard distinction between hard-line political dogmas and religions. Perhaps if we defined religions as mostly in the personal and spiritual domain, that might be true. So we might include Buddhism, most aspects of Hinduism, Sufism and so on. However, once religions become organised into instruments of politics and power, then really where’s the difference apart, maybe, from the appeal to metaphysics. Early Christian churches (nice homely affairs) got turned into instruments of political power. Indeed, that’s largely why Constantine turned Christianity into the religion of the Roman Empire. So much the better to manage his unruly empire. I saw enough ardent followers of Mao and Marx to see they commanded the same faith as any god.

    I call these creeds of certainty, and they are inherently dangerous where they allow for the carrying out of heinous acts in the name of some unquestionable truth. That there is a virulent strain of this in Islam just now is surely incontestable. That this was true in the past for Christianity is also true. If you want an example when (maybe) the strands of Christian religious and political certainty crossed over, you might be better looking at the association of the religious right and the neo-cons during the Iraq invasion. An example of political hubris, and a modern tragedy.

    So what is the upshot? Well, I simply don’t believe this idea that religious texts can’t be malevolent influences. Those that are represented by many to be unquestionable are creating a weapon for the use, conscious or other, to justify their own actions. Once this is combined into a movement, then hell can follow. I don’t much care if it’s Das Kapital, The Little Red Book or Leviticus. Those that promote these as other than the products of fallible humans are unconsciously creating trouble.

    • nicely put – what I also find interesting is many atheists I know are as dogmatic as any religion – in terms of their hatred of religion. it turns into, as you say, a creed of certainty as you say. This is, as you rightly say, what we should all be wary of

      • Steve Jones says:

        Thanks, although maybe I ought to say there’s a certain irony about a scientist writing under a quote “to generalize is to be an idiot” when, especially in the natural sciences, the ultimate ambition is surely to formulate general rules which we hope points to a deeper layer of understanding.

        All very unfair, and taken completely out of context. But then it strikes me that Blake’s comment contains it’s own contraction. After all, was he not using a generalisation himself?

        nb. I do have intellectual concerns with the nature of faith, but humans are not defined by rationality alone. I’m, more worried by the practical consequences.

        • Yes good point about Blake – about science, well this is what gets us in trouble- we do try to define theories but you have to be a bit careful as a scientific theory is just the ‘best at the time’ it is not absolute – a lot of scientists forget this. Like Newton’s laws of physics, they work when they do , but not for the very small … eg quantum mechanics. So I would argue that the Blake quote indeed is scientific in some ways …

      • I can hold my hands up to the accusation of dogmatism (and doggedness)! If I were to try to highlight the source of that dogmatism, I guess it’s that I can’t quite believe that in the 21st century billions of people still believe that the answers to the big questions are best found in Bronze Age and Iron Age myths. And that somehow this mythology is meant to provide a superior ethical framework to anything else we might envisage.

        If I think about this too long I can get immensely dispirited about the future of humanity. Hence the dogmatism.

  2. Hi, Sylvia.

    Thanks for that thought-provoking and insightful post. As, however, you might expect on the basis of our Twitter exchanges, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to quibble. While I agree that a sweeping generalization of the type that “All religious people are crazy” is not at all helpful, I nonetheless am fully behind Weinburg’s sweeping generalization that “Religion is an insult to human dignity”, or Salman Rushdie’s more recent “Religion, a medieval form of unreason…” and have tweeted these statements once or twice over the last couple of days.

    Contra Blake (i.e. the title of your post), I don’t think it’s idiotic at all to generalize that all religion is nothing more than mythology. My belief in the Great Green Arkleseizure, and, of course, Her prophet Douglas Adams, is just as valid as the myths of any of the major religions. Nonetheless, and like you, I am happy for others to believe in what they want as long as it doesn’t encroach on the lives and freedoms of others .

    Except it always does.

    The problem with religion — and, again, I’ll generalize to all religion — is that those of faith believe that their particular mythology gives them god-given insights (ahem) into what is right and wrong; the godless heathens (outside the tribe) are assumed to be lacking in ethics. As I said via Twitter, this is beyond parody. Religions of all hues have a shocking history of opposing greater women’s rights, gay rights, trans rights… — human rights in general.

    So, I’m very comfortable to generalize and repeat what I said in a tweet shortly after I found out about the atrocities in Paris last week:

    ““Religion is an insult to human dignity” — Steven Weinburg nails it. When is our species going to leave toxic fucking mythology behind?”

    Or, as XTC put it rather more eloquently in their song “Dear God”:

    “Dear God”

    , hope you got the letter, and…
    I pray you can make it better down here.
    I don’t mean a big reduction in the price of beer
    but all the people that you made in your image, see
    them starving on their feet ’cause they don’t get
    enough to eat from God, I can’t believe in you

    Dear God, sorry to disturb you, but… I feel that I should be heard
    loud and clear. We all need a big reduction in amount of tears
    and all the people that you made in your image, see them fighting
    in the street ’cause they can’t make opinions meet about God,
    I can’t believe in you

    Did you make disease, and the diamond blue? Did you make
    mankind after we made you? And the devil too!

    , don’t know if you noticed, but… your name is on
    a lot of quotes in this book, and us crazy humans wrote it, you
    should take a look, and all the people that you made in your
    image still believing that junk is true. Well I know it ain’t, and
    so do you, dear God, I can’t believe in I don’t believe in

    I won’t believe in heaven and hell. No saints, no sinners, no
    devil as well. No pearly gates, no thorny crown. You’re always
    letting us humans down. The wars you bring, the babes you
    drown. Those lost at sea and never found, and it’s the same the
    whole world ’round. The hurt I see helps to compound that
    Father, Son and Holy Ghost is just somebody’s unholy hoax,
    and if you’re up there you’d perceive that my heart’s here upon
    my sleeve. If there’s one thing I don’t believe in

    it’s you….

    • Generalizing that all religion is mythology is a bit different than generalizing that all religion is evil. But people, with or without religion, believe all sorts of crazy shit. It’s when belief translates into aggression/violence there is a problem, I think. I think these nutso islamic militants are using religion as a vehicle to do bad, shia law and all that shit. Just like the Magdalen laundries you mentioned in a tweet – I am sure a lot of people would say that wasn’t Christian.

      The point is that religion for some is a comfort and a place where they can have a code – I have met some truly thoughtful and gentle religious people who believe in ‘love thy neighbour’ etc… I have also met some nasty fundamentalists who believe I am going to hell (more of those after all I am from Tennessee) but whatever … sometimes for some religion can be a force for good – sometimes not. There are lots of mythologies we believe in – the problem comes when we try to enforce that on others – eg like this abortion nonsense in the states. I used t have a bumper sticker on my truck (yes truck) in Tennessee that said ‘Keep your laws off my body’ – and as a result had my tires slashed many of times. Without the sticker? No tire slashing. There are nut bags everywhere, and they will still be around even if we had a world without religion ….

      and as an aside, I hope you copied those XTC lyrics from a website and don’t have them memorized 🙂 …. its been a while since I heard that …

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    I agree 100% with every word that you wrote. It is morally wrong to cast any blame on religion in general (or specifically Islam) as a cause of the terror, because as it has been pointed out, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are horrified at how these terrorists have ‘hijacked’ their religion for murderous purposes. Despite these facts, however, it is necessary for governments in Europe and around the world to recognize that these are murderous cults and not simply ‘lone wolves.’ There is formidable and significant support for these terrorists and their actions, and there have been calls, demonstrations and rallies in European countries, Canada and even the US for turning the countries into Islamic republics with religious law. Again, these may reflect a very tiny minority of the overall Muslim communities in each country — so without blaming a specific religion, it is necessary for democracies to take steps against any group that threatens not to abide by the rules of a tolerant liberal democracy.

    • aeon says:

      Steve, I am *very* sure that gouvernments in Europe and most parts of the world recognize the thread of organised terrorism, especially the part driven by insane cult leaders, religious or not. Your comment suggest that you think otherwise.

      It seems that you also think that the measures which have been taken so far are not enough. But you do not specify which measures you are talking about. This is dangerous.

      The trouble is that a growing number of normal citizens and quite a number of politicians already do see Islam as a threat, and preach that the “murderous cults” will be the downfall of civilisation. To make my point, bluntly: they are extremists too, and they often too violate the rules of tolerant liberal democracies. But worse, they change the political landscape. It breeds right-wing movements. It threatens tolerance in every society.

      Since a couple of weeks there have been demonstrations in Germany, specifically in the city of Dresden, with up to nearly 20k people. Mainly because of one piece in The Guardian, the Anglo-Saxon speaking part world heard of this as the “pinstriped Nazi” demonstrations. There is a growing right-wing minority in Germany, voicing a call for law and order coupled with clear anti-immigration, anti-muslim, and anti-semitic ideas. These people are “concerned” or even “afraid” because of the growing number of Muslims. For the record, the state of Saxony has below 0.1 percent Muslims, yet these open right-wing demonstrations are strongest there.

      Paris, on the other hand, is a truly french, and still very multicultural city. And there were about 2 mio people on the streets yesterday, to show that they are not afraid, and that liberty has a meaning they are willing to defend. Which includes the liberty to offend.

      I don’t know if you visited Paris recently, but I can assure you that security measures there are quite high. Military is deployed to secure important infrastructure and public places on a regular basis. France also has a very effective secret service, a strong police force, effective communication data preservation laws (unlike Germany, where a heated discussion about this is taking place), and CCTV everywhere (not as much as in the UK, granted).

      Also yesterday, also in Paris, there has been a unanimous call by politicians for more communications surveillance, for more security measures, for more restrictions to our liberty and freedom.

      This, in my opinion, is another step in the wrong direction. I sincerely hope that you did not wanted to suggest to go down that path.

    • Laurence Cox says:

      Steve,
      I fully agree with both you and Sylvia. If there is a problem with Islam here, it is with the Wahhabi form of the faith that developed in Saudi Arabia, beginning in the 18th Century. Had oil not been discovered in the Persian Gulf, it would probably have have remained an unimportant branch of the religion, but the power that oil has given to the nation, allied with modern communications has allowed it to spread with a speed that even exceeds Mohammed’s original expansion. We also need to note that its expansion comes from the lack of resistance to it. Both in northern Iraq and in northern Nigeria, armies that should have been capable of withstanding an assault, turned tail and ran from it.

      I do not think that we should prevent anyone from demonstrating peacefully for a change in government; as Voltaire said: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” (actually he said it in French, but the meaning is the same); but we do need to appreciate the fears of the Jewish population, especially in France, the european country with the biggest anti-Semitism problem. I would like to see Barack Obama saying: “if you don’t feel safe in europe, come to America.”