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The popular saying is attributed to a physicist named Steven Weinberg and goes thusly:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil–that takes religion.

And I know this saying is true. One of the most eye-opening conversations I ever had about good and evil happened while I was a fundamentalist and talking with a Muslim man.

English: Steven Weinberg at the 2010 Texas Boo...
English: Steven Weinberg at the 2010 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was the early 90s, and I was already having some serious reservations about some of the stuff I’d been taught by my church. Remember, I wasn’t always a fundie; I’d converted in my teens from Catholicism, and I was now rounding 20 or so–but I’d been quite a fervent student. That summer I was working as a dorm-painter for my university to earn enough money to attend school the following year. It wasn’t awesome money, but it was more than minimum wage and enough to live on and put some aside. More importantly, if I worked on-campus, I could stay that summer in the dorms without having to move to an apartment for the summer, which was a much more pressing concern than even tuition.

The university painted the dorm rooms every few years. It was a much bigger project than the maintenance people could do by themselves, so they generally hired short-term help from the student body. I was the first–and that year, the only–woman hired for this work; most of the crew were African-American or Hispanic men. And before you ask, yes, I wore a skirt and tennis shoes for this manual labor. Utter impracticality couldn’t get in the way of my indoctrination.

My manager paired me with an earnest young Muslim man on the grounds of not knowing what to do with either of us, and the two of us set off with our work orders in hand every morning.

We made a really good team, Akkam and I. I don’t remember us ever having any trouble. After we got the hang of it, we quickly became one of the best and most efficient of the teams. He was from the Middle East, though I don’t remember what country; he had had an arranged marriage the year before and I gathered his parents were of middling income. He was midway through his doctoral studies; during that summer he was working to save money to support his wife and their newborn child for the year ahead.

As the work was fairly mindless, we were free to chat while we worked, and often we’d end up talking about ourselves–our lives, what it was like for us growing up, and sometimes (oh so cautiously) skirting around the edges of religion. We both sensed that it was unwise for two people working so closely together to talk too much about religion, but given how important it was for both of us, inevitably we’d both ask and answer questions.

Author Salman Rushdie having a discussion with...
Author Salman Rushdie having a discussion with Emory University students (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And as important as my religion was to me, his religion seemed even more important to him. He prayed five times a day–privately. I didn’t even notice at first, he was so subtle about it. I never caught him at it directly. But he’d vanish on a short break and come back a few minutes later, obviously not having gone to get water or to visit the bathroom. When he talked, it was with that quiet humble somberness you see out of deeply spiritual people so often. He did his best to treat me with complete respect, which really was one of the most surprising aspects of his understanding of Islam; he thought that how his religion often treated women was simply awful, and he was actually proud of how progressive he was about women’s rights. To hear him tell it, his own wife was astonished by how well he treated her; he didn’t demand she dress any particular way or act subservient, and he’d encouraged her to get her own education at home as she cared for their baby. He expected her to want a job at some point and he was fine with that. Though their marriage had been arranged, he said he’d been careful to ensure she seemed okay with the idea.

Now, I know that this might have been just talk. He might have been exaggerating. I never found out how accurate it was. But just that he wanted it to be true, just that he thought of himself that way, was mind-blowing to me. And the rest of his political views seemed to skew very liberal as well–more so than mine.

I’m telling you this so you know why what happened next shocked me so deeply–so much that I’ve never forgotten it.

The Satanic Verses had come out a year or so previously. The author, Salman Rushdie, won some nice awards for it, but he also earned the wrath of some of the leaders of the Muslim faith. One of those leaders had gone so far as to order a fatwa against him–in essence ordering all good Muslims to try to murder him by any means possible.

“So what do you think of all that fatwa business then?” I asked my teammate one afternoon as we relaxed on a break late in the summer. “I mean, the idea of killing someone for writing a book?”

I’ll never forget what he said. Never, ever, ever. I’d seriously expected him to kinda chuckle and distance himself from his religion’s murderous zealots. That is not what happened. His eyes suddenly took on a blazing fury. His voice, when he spoke, was like a sword.

“I totally agree with it. Anyone who criticizes Islam should die.”

For a long minute the words hung there. I stared at him, unable to reconcile the progressive, liberal, kindhearted, respectful man I’d known for weeks with the Muslim firebrand now before me. I had no idea what to say.

“You’re serious? You’d kill him if you could–just for writing something?” I finally asked, which in retrospect was probably not the best thing to follow up with.

He nodded quite emphatically. “I absolutely would.”

We’d taken a lurching leap forward toward a deep abyss, and now I stumbled and stammered back away from that edge. I don’t remember what either of us said afterward. I had been the one to open this wriggling can of worms, and I didn’t think it’d be fair to hold against him that he’d honestly answered me. I tried not to let it affect our work.

I lost track of him after that summer, but he’d given me a startling look into the very heart of zealotry and what it can do to a person’s sense of morals. As progressive as he was, Akkam was quite willing to murder in the name of his faith. I couldn’t understand it at all. But if I was honest with myself, I could see the same exact things were happening in my own religion. The zealots of my own religion had far more in common with Akkam than they did with, it seemed, me.

I wish I could be shocked when I hear Christians trying to rationalize away horrible genocides and crimes. I wish I could be surprised when I hear about Christians lying and stealing in the name of their religion. I wish with all my heart that I could. I wished it then, too. I didn’t understand how decent, good people could be induced to think murder was okay–and I’m not just talking about Akkam now. Obviously, many Christians condemn murders and genocides no matter who does them; obviously, many Muslims disagree with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and hate the violence that zealots in their religion are committing in various parts of the world.

But that day I had to come face to face with the simple fact that the more zealous someone seemed to be, the more willing that person was to excuse and even embrace those sorts of elements. I had to confront the startling idea of being so zealous about one’s faith that one can’t even tell that one has internalized some downright evil and dangerous ideas. I suddenly saw that just because someone saw himself as a good person didn’t mean that he was–and that people could slice away parts of themselves and present a very kind, loving face to the world yet have a slice hidden away that was horrific and violent.

I saw what fundamentalism can do to someone’s head with its us-versus-them mentality and its all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us mindset. That’s a really seductive mindset. It makes the fundamentalist into a zealous warrior on the side of good and righteousness. It gives the fundamentalist something big to fight against and a feeling of accomplishing much in the world. It can also nudge someone who is naturally very kind and humble into doing and saying things that are wildly out of character because that’s what the person thinks is expected. I’d already been doing such things for years–I’m not naturally someone to be confrontational or excessively firm, but you can bet that I’d come out with some whoppers and done some really awful things because I thought my religion called for it. My thankfully-short-lived involvement with a forced-birther campus group was one of those things, and while there, I’d seen how the group nudged people into talking about doing violence to clinics and abortion providers in the name of the “greater good” and seeing those acts of violence as good things because they were done in the name of “saving babies.” (They weren’t and we weren’t, but that’s what we thought at least.) In the face of some huge noble cause like that, such acts sound an awful lot more excusable to zealots who are already predisposed to see such acts as necessary for their god to do sometimes.

Indeed, that’s what the worst part was of the day I talked to Akkam about the fatwa: I wasn’t too sure I was too different. I suddenly perceived that we had some uncomfortable similarities.

I wonder suddenly if that’s why I didn’t fall too much deeper into the rabbit hole of fundamentalism. After that day, I looked a lot more critically at some of the stuff going on around me. I was a lot less willing to excuse or overlook evil deeds done in the name of good. And when I finally came face to face with the evil deeds my own god had done to humankind, I was more ready to acknowledge those deeds as evil and refuse to condone them, much less celebrate them as I see so many Christians doing nowadays.

What’s hilarious is that I can see that it utterly baffles Christians who see outsiders reacting with revulsion and disgust about their beloved religion’s history of evil deeds. Today I read an entertaining review of one such defense; in the review, I can see now where Christians are getting some of their wilder revisionary-history ideas, because this book seems to contain all of the cringeworthy rationalizations I’ve been hearing lately.

Christians don’t like the idea that their god might have murdered billions of humans or deliberately sabotaged us on numerous occasions or emotionally tortured his people into doing things like sacrificing their own children or advised his people to attack innocent foreigners and sexually enslave their very young daughters, or even that he allowed the murder of an entire family just to win a cheap bet with Satan. They don’t like thinking that their god didn’t once say “Hey, don’t own other human beings under any circumstances” or “don’t devalue women based on their sexual history.” So they contort and contort and contort themselves into figuring out some way to have these stories reflect a 100% good god. That’s inevitably going to involve figuring out some rationalization that makes those acts divine and not evil. Part of me rather suspects that at that point, their minds are willing to accept that if those things were okay under some circumstances then, then perhaps there’s some circumstance that makes them okay now.

And after years of internalizing those messages, after years of quietly hearing about this evil and hearing about how sometimes it’s totally called-for to treat people that way, suddenly a perfectly kind, sweet Christian couple–a couple who undoubtedly have some sort of standing in their community and who think of themselves as decent people–throw their own son out of the family home and physically and verbally abuse him (btw, content notice of domestic violence and anti-LGBT bigotry), all because he doesn’t have the sexual urges their religion teaches he should have. Evil deeds done in the name of good are still evil, and a good intention does not magically transform evil into good. And “because an invisible man in this book said it was okay” is not a reason for me to consider those evil deeds morally acceptable.

Unfortunately, when someone who thinks of him- or herself as acting on behalf of ultimate goodness and holiness, that can push that person into doing things that would otherwise be unthinkable. For all Christians’ talk of having “objective morality,” nothing about how they rationalize evil into good seems objective to me.

A truly good cause wouldn’t need someone to do evil deeds to support and advance itself, and I hope that zealots of all faiths figure that out one day.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...