by Adam Garfinkle

Are there any tears left? Have we become so numbed by the intolerance and violence pouring within and projected out of the Middle East these days that, just to protect ourselves from daily emotional shattering, we create ever-thicker barriers between the small shard of humanity we engage face-to-face and the much larger numbers of brothers and sisters we do not know?

What did I read this morning? At least 54 innocent people were killed by a series of bombs planted in a Shi’a-populated market area of Baghdad—everyone assumes Da’esh is culpable, in an effort to release pressure from or exact revenge for the Iraqi army’s campaign against it at Rutba and towns nearby. Any normal person would weep upon hearing such terrible news; but unless we knew one of the victims, we husband our tears….and try to think of something else.

Less violent but not much less disturbing, Iranian media reported today that after Faezeh Hashemi recently met Fariba Kamalabadi, a leader of Iran’s Baha’i community allowed out of prison on a short break, Faezeh’s own father, ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, publicly criticized his own daughter. Rafsanjani claimed, in what he has to know is a pure lie, that the “Baha’i sect was created by the colonialists” and so is “a deviant sect . . . that we disavow.” Others demanded that Faezeh be jailed for even talking with “heretics”, who are often accused of being spies on the absurd grounds that the Baha’i center is in Haifa and who are denied all civil rights.

Just two news items……but we could find twenty more just from yesterday or the day before—reported from what is left of Syria, Yemen, Libya….—to turn our hearts to stone. And it is behavior like this that causes some people, in the West and increasingly in the Muslim world, to become stony atheists, accusing religion of being the font of the intolerance that incites murder, terror, torture, and oppression. One can understand the frustration that leads to such a view, but atheism cannot solve these problems.

Human beings are theotropic by nature, for there will always be compelling mysteries that reason alone cannot explain, and which lead us to contemplate some First Cause of creation. No human culture has ever endured, let alone flourished, without religion, and not just to enforce in-group/out-group boundaries. The teachings and discipline of religion support community, instill patience and generosity, compassion and humility, intergenerational responsibility and respect for elders. Atheists have no substitutes to offer that can inculcate such virtues on a mass social scale, and without which our lives would ever taste of bitterness and bile. And atheism cannot restock our precious reservoir of tears with new hope; only faith can do that. 

Religion is not the problem; distortion of religion is the problem, massive and long-lasting though it may be. Religion is a goad to violence and oppression only under two conditions: when its adherents think that when God appears to choose He thereby also rejects; and when religion is armed in connection to politics. The latter condition is too obvious to warrant comment, but the former may not be.

Consider parents with two or more children. Do they love one child more than the others? Of course not: Parents love each child beyond any measure for that child’s unique qualities. If parents have love enough to suffice for all their children, does not God, whose love is infinite, not have the capacity to love all His children as well?

All the Abrahamic scriptures contain narratives in which God chooses some individuals and groups over others. But read more carefully, one can discern subtle counter-narratives that reveal a great surprise: God chooses but He never rejects. He may choose Ishmael but he does not thereby reject Isaac (or vice versa, depending on the scripture of choice). He may choose Joseph but not thereby reject his brothers. God rejects rejection; He can count to two! Everyone and every group has its own blessing, bestowed and become manifest in its own time and place.

It’s not Sunni or Shi’a; its Sunni and Shi’a (and more) nestled in the womb of Islam. It’s not Muslim or Baha’i; it’s Muslim and Baha’i (and more) nestled in the womb of Iran. Ultimately on this planet, it’s not us or them but everyone together, the dignity of our differences neither denied nor defamed, but respected and cherished. Then our tears will be tears of joy, and we will never lack for them.