There was this woman named Martha back in colonial New England. She lived in the 1600s in Andover, Massachusetts. In fact, her father had been one of the town’s founders. Life was tough in the colonies, especially so for an independent-minded woman like Martha. Her entire life, she went against the grain, having children out of wedlock and marrying beneath her status. After having four children, Martha’s strong-headedness found her alienated from the other members of her community. She didn’t much mind, though, she had her husband and her four children to keep her company.
When smallpox broke out in Andover, however, Martha found herself the target of scrutinizing eyes. Whispers began around town, as more people were killed by the illness. She heard them blame her. In all, thirteen people died, seven of whom were members of Martha’s own family. Rumour had it, Martha was a witch and had caused the outbreaks.
Two years later, Martha stood trial for witchcraft in Salem, after another smallpox outbreak occurred there. Witnesses assured the court they were haunted by the ghosts of Andover, and they were sure as the sun would rise that Martha was to blame. Martha’s children were tortured bloody until they confessed to being witches themselves and pointed the finger at their mother. It was all over for Martha. She was hanged in August 1692.
It was okay, though. The people of Salem were Puritans. Puritans, like most Christians, valued the word of God and the word of God was very clear:
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. – Exodus 22:18
It’s hard to argue with that. If you are a believer, and you accept that both the Old and New Testament are the infallible words of God, you must both believe in witchcraft and not want witches to live, no?
But we don’t execute witches anymore, do we? Even the most devout Christians most likely wouldn’t advocate for the murder of those accused of witchcraft. Outside of small pockets of ignorance throughout the world, we wouldn’t even accuse anyone of witchcraft, to begin with.
So, what changed? What changed between 1692 and now? Was it the Bible? No. It’s right there, in Exodus, written plain as day: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. God certainly didn’t swoop down from his Heavenly throne to edit that one heinous passage, nor any of the others throughout both testaments.
The Bible hasn’t changed. It is no different from the copies that floated around in 1692, save for the language. The basis of Christianity and Judaism remains the same.
What has changed since 1692 is us. We’ve changed. Our values have changed. Our morals have changed. The vast majority of those of us in developed nations value secularism, whether we are religious or not.
Secular values are what stops us from burning witches at the stake. The separation of church and state prevents us from legislating Biblical law. Adopting our own morality, independent of what the Bible says is the difference between us and the Puritans. While many people remain Christian and Jewish and still revere the words of the Bible, there is something stopping the faithful from heeding the most violent or hateful biblical passages. There is something stopping them from advocating for the execution of witches.
These values didn’t change because of Christian religious views. They changed in spite of them.
It can be said that, for the most part, secularism has kept the religious in check in the Western world. Christianity is no longer a violent and murderous threat because secular values make a damned good babysitter.
This morning, we woke up to the news that dozens of people had been killed in terror attacks in Brussels. We’ve been here before. We’ve risen to the news the Charlie Hebdo staff was massacred. We’ve followed along with the live updates as the Paris attacks unfolded. We all watched the twin towers fall.
The countries from which most of these attackers hail are countries that have not discovered the value of secularism yet. Like the Puritans of colonial New England, residents of these countries are free to interpret their religious doctrine literally and follow every word.
They wish you would disbelieve as they disbelieved so you would be alike. So do not take from among them allies until they emigrate for the cause of Allah . But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper. 4:89
[Remember] when your Lord inspired to the angels, “I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.” 8:12
Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. 4:34
Like the Puritans, Muslim extremists take the words of their holy book very seriously. Also like the Puritans, Muslim extremists are not being kept in check by values outside of their holy book.
With secularism, though, we grew out of the extreme, witch-burning version of Puritanism. With secularism, I believe, we can grow out of the extreme, suicide bombing version of Islam. That is why what outspoken secularists do is so important. That is why we get online and shout about it until we’re exhausted. Eventually, the hope is, people from the most remote, theocratic corners of the world will log on and hear our secular message. Eventually, we hope, this message will make sense to one or two of them and they’ll pass it on.
When people ask me why I never shut up about my atheism, or when they ask why I talk so much about something I don’t believe in, the answer is this:
If I shut up, I might miss that one kid in Iraq or Afghanistan or Nigeria who hears what I have to say. If I shut up, he might not take my message to heart and put humanity above his own religious beliefs. If I shut up, he might not decide to raise his children in a secular household with secular values keeping their religious beliefs in check. His daughter and her little brother who, if I had shut up, may have grown up to blow himself up on a crowded train in Brussels.