I don't like the idea that my consciousness will cease with my death. And yet, if I had to choose, I'd say that's what I believe occurs, since there is a lot of evidence to support it, and no evidence to the contrary. But because the idea makes me unhappy, I can certainly understand why people would choose to believe in an afterlife. And so I can therefore understand why people hold faith in certain belief structures instead of accepting a frightening alternative.
So the problem isn't religion. The problem is that people prefer to be ruled by their passions instead of their reason, and religion provides an excuse to do so.
I've been thinking about this as I read and hear about the international crisis arisen in the wake of Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Twelve little cartoons and people respond not only with riots, but embargoes and official diplomatic atrophy. It's bad enough when it's teenagers burning embassies because they're hot-blooded and ignorant, but when prominent public officials and diplomats, even those who decry terrorism in the name of Islam, are deliberately damaging trade and calling for punishment of the cartoonists, it's a larger, more serious problem. A more fundamental problem, you might say.
The cartoons are viewable at the Wikipedia entry on the matter. Some of them criticise the treatment of women in popular Muslim culture, while another is of a cartoonist nervously drawing Muhammad. That these should provoke physically violent outrage is terrible, but the most controversial cartoon is one depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. That this should provoke violent reprisals is terrible in a different way. For one thing, it shows the distressingly poor conception of irony; "Call us a violent people, will you?! That makes us so mad that we're gonna burn your embassies!"
Personally, I don't think the cartoon is necessarily insulting to Islam. If the artist was interested in making a statement with it, it could well be that the juxtaposition of Muhammad with a bomb is a discordant one, an ugly one. One might say that if the artist felt violence was fundamental to Islam, such a drawing would be pointless. But, then, maybe the artist wasn't that clever. Perhaps it's a genuinely bigoted caricature.
In any case, I disagree with the people who are calling the article and the cartoons the obvious products of irresponsible provocateurs. The general point of the article seems to have been to do with free speech and understanding the nature of Islam in a positive light; the cartoons were commissioned as response to an author's difficulty in finding illustrators for a children's book on the life of Muhammad. That those who've reacted hatefully to the article are unable to comprehend that, to the point of feeling very extreme reprisals are warranted, evinces a deep rooted and widespread cultural malady. A malady that cannot be solved with military action, as current U.S. leaders might think, but, if anything, with better cultural thought, and the instillation of respect for secular reason.
The fact that that's probably never going to happen should not restrict artists from working for or under finer principles. And part of living in a society where people are free to express ideas is learning not to freak out when someone expresses what seems like a bad idea. Perhaps people simply need to realise that considerations of life and limb ought to take more serious priority than those of ink and paint.
And for gods' sake, people; lighten up.