Classification can help you sort things out, make informed decisions. If someone was to threaten you with a gun, it would be helpful to know whether it was an assault rifle or a Nerf gun (soft foam bullets).
Sometimes classification can be used to obscure, to prevent the making of informed decisions. The Obama administration classified the Fort Hood massacre of 2009 as workplace violence, even though the perpetrator had been in touch with Al Qaida just before. The death of a teenager throwing Molotov cocktails at civilians was classified as “tragic.”
There is a debate going on whether the Ottawa shooter at the Parliament Buildings was driven by a dangerous religion or mental illness. The classification of his motives is a meaningless discussion. He was a terrorist.
Another example of misleading classification is the concept of “religion.” It has countless definitions; some positive, many pejorative. They reflect the many different aspects of life it contends with, from environmentalism to disease, from meditation to massacres. Is a belief system that has no compunction about slaughtering non-believers in the same category as one that says life is sacred? In the same category as a system that declares all humans have a right to religious freedom? While Christian and Jewish fundamentalists may at times be annoying, they threaten no one’s life in the name of God. Does anyone fear a pious Hindu?
“A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful , pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
– Clifford Geertz
When we bring Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, shamanism, animism, etc. all into one big category, religion, it says they are all similar.
They’re not. A mosque is not a church, which is not a synagogue, which is not an ashram. Their symbols are different, their beliefs are different, but most importantly, their actions based on those symbols and beliefs are different. If we assume that leaders from all religions promote peace and kindness, like Pope John Paul II, or the Dalai Lama we will be unable to respond when they act otherwise.
When homicidal youth flock to only one particular system of beliefs and symbols, that system deserves its own, unique classification. When the historical death toll of that system dwarfs all the others put together, we can’t say it’s like Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism or any of the others. It’s not.
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