Why peace activists (and critics of religion) sometimes fail

I just read something interesting in this article:


I participated for a time in a Los Angeles-area peace and justice group, an interfaith group filled with good and righteous people. Following the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, it was decided that we should be reaching out to area congregations to ask if we could provide them with guest speakers who would then tell the members of those congregations just how wrong and pointless the war and occupation was. There were few takers. Meanwhile, but on a separate track, this same group was establishing relationships with returning soldiers and military family members who opposed the war. I suggested that we might ask congregations whether they would care to hear from a service member or a military family member, someone who would simply tell their story, rather than hear from one of the well-briefed peaceniks. My suggestion was rejected, as this would have deprived the peaceniks of a chance to sound off about how wrong (how very wrong) George W. Bush and Don Rumsfeld had been in regard to principles of international law. I withdrew from the group shortly thereafter.

I would have left too, because unless and until you use real life examples to illustrate a principle, you get nowhere, and you don’t deserve to.


Trauma of Iraq war haunting thousands returning home
By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jeremy Harrison sees the warning signs in the Iraq war veterans who walk through his office door every day — flashbacks, inability to relax or relate, restless nights and more.

He recognizes them as symptoms of combat stress because he’s trained to, as a counselor at the small storefront Vet Center here run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He recognizes them as well because he, too, has faced readjustment in the year since he returned from Iraq, where he served as a sergeant in an engineering company that helped capture Baghdad in 2003.

“Sometimes these sessions are helpful to me,” Harrison says, taking a break from counseling some of the nation’s newest combat veterans. “Because I deal with a lot of the same problems.”

As the United States nears the two-year mark in its military presence in Iraq still fighting a violent insurgency, it is also coming to grips with one of the products of war at home: a new generation of veterans, some of them scarred in ways seen and unseen. While military hospitals mend the physical wounds, the VA is attempting to focus its massive health and benefits bureaucracy on the long-term needs of combat veterans after they leave military service. Some suffer from wounds of flesh and bone, others of emotions and psyche.


• Jesus Bocanegra was an Army infantry scout for units that pursued Saddam Hussein in his hometown of Tikrit. After he returned home to McAllen, Texas, it took him six months to find a job.

He was diagnosed with PTSD and is waiting for the VA to process his disability claim. He goes to the local Vet Center but is unable to relate to the Vietnam-era counselors.

“I had real bad flashbacks. I couldn’t control them,” Bocanegra, 23, says. “I saw the murder of children, women. It was just horrible for anyone to experience.”

Bocanegra recalls calling in Apache helicopter strikes on a house by the Tigris River where he had seen crates of enemy ammunition carried in. When the gunfire ended, there was silence.

But then children’s cries and screams drifted from the destroyed home, he says. “I didn’t know there were kids there,” he says. “Those screams are the most horrible thing you can hear.”

At home in the Rio Grande Valley, on the Mexico border, he says young people have no concept of what he’s experienced. His readjustment has been difficult: His friends threw a homecoming party for him, and he got arrested for drunken driving on the way home.

“The Army is the gateway to get away from poverty here,” Bocanegra says. “You go to the Army and expect to be better off, but the best job you can get (back home) is flipping burgers. … What am I supposed to do now? How are you going to live?”

• Lt. Julian Goodrum, an Army reservist from Knoxville, Tenn., is being treated for PTSD with therapy and anti-anxiety drugs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He checked himself into a civilian psychiatric hospital after he was turned away from a military clinic, where he had sought attention for his mental problems at Fort Knox, Ky. He’s facing a court-martial for being AWOL while in the civilian facility.

Goodrum, 34, was a transportation platoon leader in Iraq, running convoys of supplies from Kuwait into Iraq during the invasion. He returned to the USA in the summer of 2003 and experienced isolation, depression, an inability to sleep and racing thoughts.

“It just accumulated until it overwhelmed me. I was having a breakdown and trying to get assistance,” he says. “The smell of diesel would trigger things for me. Loud noises, crowds, heavy traffic give me a hard time now. I have a lot of panic. … You feel like you’re choking.”

• Sean Huze, a Marine corporal awaiting discharge at Camp Lejeune, N.C., doesn’t have PTSD but says everyone who saw combat suffers from at least some combat stress. He says the unrelenting insurgent threat in Iraq gives no opportunity to relax, and combat numbs the senses and emotions.

“There is no ‘front,’ ” Huze says. “You go back to the rear, at the Army base in Mosul, and you go in to get your chow, and the chow hall blows up.”

Huze, 30, says the horror often isn’t felt until later. “I saw a dead child, probably 3 or 4 years old, lying on the road in Nasiriyah,” he says. “It moved me less than if I saw a dead dog at the time. I didn’t care. Then you come back, if you are fortunate enough, and hold your own child, and you think of the dead child you didn’t care about. … You think about how little you cared at the time, and that hurts.”

Smells bring back the horror. “A barbecue pit — throw a steak on the grill, and it smells a lot like searing flesh,” he says. “You go to get your car worked on, and if anyone is welding, the smell of the burning metal is no different than burning caused by rounds fired at it. It takes you back there instantly.”

• Allen Walsh, an Army reservist, came back to Tucson 45 pounds lighter and with an injured wrist. He was unable to get his old job back teaching at a truck-driving school. He started his own business instead, a mobile barbecue service. He’s been waiting nearly a year on a disability claim with the VA.

Walsh, 36, spent much of the war in Kuwait, attached to a Marine unit providing force protection and chemical decontamination. He says he has experienced PTSD, which he attributes to the constant threat of attack and demand for instant life-or-death decisions.

“It seemed like every day you were always pointing your weapon at somebody. It’s something I have to live with,” he says.

At home, he found he couldn’t sleep more than three or four hours a night. When the nightmares began, he started smoking cigarettes. He’d find himself shaking and quick-tempered.

“Any little noise and I’d jump out of bed and run around the house with a gun,” he says. “I’d wake up at night with cold sweats.”

When you make it personal, you touch a lot more people than when you don’t.

I’ve made a lot of arguments against the Baha’i Faith, for example, but I know Baha’is can use all sorts of rationalizations to counter my talking points. That’s because talking points alone cannot touch people’s hearts. You have to show how something that may look good actually affects someone’s LIFE!



We need to tell more stories, not just tell more talking points.


In September 1999 I discovered the Baha’i Faith via the Internet, declared in September 2000 and resigned in September 2001. I have continued to reflect on my experiences with the BF in the intervening year and offer the following as a reflection on why I initially joined the Faith and, more importantly, why I was unable to remain within it.
After a year of intensive study I began to feel that it was decision time. I was also aware that following my attendance at a Baha’i summer school, there was a tangible expectation that I would declare soon. My sponsor told me that although she had taken a number of years to take the final step I could only truly experience the faith from the inside and could always walk away if I found I had made the wrong decision.

Yet, now that it was crunch time I had a sense of doubt that simply would not go away. I think it was a sense that, as the old adage has it, “if something sounds too good to be true then it probably is”.

Wouldn’t it be better to try and answer all my niggling questions and doubts before taking the plunge? I told myself that perhaps these difficulties would disappear as I grew in the faith, and I was very aware that if I failed to declare soon, I would disappoint the Baha’is who had taken an interest in me.

Thus I persuaded myself to go ahead despite my misgivings. I had no sense of peace or elation. Indeed, I felt miserable on the evening of my declaration, but put it down to residual guilt for having “betrayed” Christianity. I tried to comfort myself with the assurances that I was now a “completed” Christian and had not turned my back on Jesus Christ, instead I had recognized His return.

Immediately after my declaration people congratulated me, but then I had a sense of being yesterday’s news and it was on to finding the next convert. The three months after I declared were a lonely time for me and I felt I was in some sort of limbo, not knowing what my role was, what was expected of me, or simply of what I was supposed to do next. I had no sense of being a cherished new member of a living, loving community or of being taken by the hand and gently guided along. I received no practical guidance or emotional support at all, just a standard letter from the NSA telling me I had done a great thing and encouraging me to look to the LSA for spiritual support and guidance.

In hindsight, it was perhaps inevitable that my initial sense of excitement and discovery could not last. Yet, I did not expect to be so thoroughly disillusioned quite so quickly. The first real jolt came when I attended the weekly Baha’i school a week after I declared and found that the emphasis appeared to be not on the independent investigation of truth but rather on sitting passively in rows being lectured to. It brought back unpleasant memories of religious education classes at school where to question things equated to being labelled a potential troublemaker or heretic. I worked as an adult education teacher and felt that how the school operated broke every rule in the book. Frankly, I expected better from Baha’is; the faith for the modern age ran a disturbingly old-fashioned Sunday school. I was desperately keen to study the Writings in depth but there was no outlet to do this. The school seemed to be keener on indoctrination than on the search for truth.

The second factor in my disillusionment was a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of community life. The community seemed to lack a sense of vitality or enthusiasm, and, for that matter, any meaningful sense of community at all. It was a curious paradox that the community appeared to be characterized by inertia despite the fact that the active members were impossibly busy! I often wondered why people did not draw back from the round of meetings and activities to ask themselves exactly what all this “busyness” actually achieved. I also noticed that many Baha’is lived their whole lives within the context of these activities and did not seem to engage with the wider world, unless it was to prosleytize them for the faith. For a religion with an international focus the Baha’i world often seemed extremely narrow and inward looking.

The third, and most important, aspect of my disillusionment lay in the disappointing quality of Baha’i spiritual life. The lack of ritual was obviously a challenge for someone with my background and I felt its absence keenly. I had heard Baha’is speak disparagingly about “empty ritual” without ever seeking to explore the meaning and function of ritual in the religious experience of human beings.
Six months after I joined I told my sponsor that I wished to leave. She was upset but accepted a lot of my criticisms. Word reached the LSA and the Chairman rang up and lectured me about backbiting instead of approaching the Assembly. I was taken aback as it had honestly never occurred to me to bare my soul before 9 people, some of whom I did not even know. I informed him that I had simply discussed my difficulties with my sponsor and another friend, both of whom had encouraged me to remain. How was this backbiting?

A Persian Baha’i then invited me to his home and he and his wife also listened to my views. They had recently moved into my community and were aware of some of the difficulties with the quality of feasts and other issues that I raised. After further discussion with my sponsor I said that I would give myself another six months before finally making a decision.

Perhaps it was not a coincidence but things started to happen after that. I was appointed to a committee, invited to talk at the next summer school and generally encouraged to get more involved. Yet, it was already too late.
In the end, however, it was made easier for me by the community’s decision to hold a series of deepenings for new believers. I dutifully attended session one but it was clear to me that I could not delay my resignation any longer. The deepening consisted of a long list of rules and regulations, of laws and of do’s and don’ts that must be obeyed by the new Baha’i. I realized that I had come full circle and was back to the impossible task of trying to please a legalistic, judgmental God. Wasn’t this what I was trying to get away from?

During the coffee break I went to the kitchen to help the host and told her that I was unhappy in the faith and wanted to return to Christianity. She told me that it was difficult for some people to stop hankering after empty ritual and not having priests telling them what to do. She regretted that her husband was not there as he could have convinced me from the Bible that the Baha’i faith was true.

I left knowing that I would not be back for session two and the next day began writing a letter to the assembly. In it I told them that a year previously I had signed a declaration card which I could not in conscience sign today as I did not believe Baha’u’llah was the return of Christ or His equal. They accepted my resignation with regret but assured me that all the friendships I had made in the community would remain. It was over.

This person became an Orthodox Christian. That seems to be her true self. But what about people who leave Christianity?


I converted to Christianity when I was 17, without knowing much about the bible and the religion.

I began attending church regularly when I was 18 and soon was all “on fire” for Jesus. I “served” all I could, spent all my time in church and soon was promoted to become an “area” leader, in charge of about a 100 youths.

I began to doubt when I was 22, after 4 years in church.

I questioned the rules ands regulations of my ex-church. Rules like prohibiting girls to wear “tight” fitting clothes, prohibiting colouring of hair, and compulsory attendance for service and cellgroup. Of course after a while, I brushed it aside. I prayed and thought that god would take those doubts away.

A year ago, my doubts were still not going away. In fact, things became worse. I began reading the bible thoroughly, hoping to find an answer for my doubts.

But the more I read the bible, the more I was appalled at the contents. I couldn’t believe that there were errors, inconsistencies and many scientific errors in it. I was also horrified that “god” actually commanded the deaths of so many innocent people (babies, women, children) in the bible just because they were his enemies.

I approached my leaders regarding the bible and of course, in all Christian fashion, they told me that I was questioning too much and gave me ridiculous answers such as “God had to kill them because they were sinful”.

I also began arguing with my pastors about the church’s rules and restrictions. Of course I was immediately labeled as “wayward” and “unsubmissive”.

Finally in 2009 February, I decided enough was enough. There were enough reasons for me to leave the religion.

AND so I left church and Christianity, and today I am so much happier.

Then there are people who leave atheism for Christianity or some other religion:


So even personal stories do not “prove” anything in religion (or politics) to be true. But what they do show is that people have a natural tendency to seek what is best for them, even if that turns out to be different from what others do. All we can do is learn to be tolerant of those differences. Lacking such tolerance is what make critics of religion fail. If we wish to be truly enlightened, we should stop fighting for a specific religion or non-religious view and fight for tolerance of OTHER religions or non-religious views that are not harmful in themselves. We do this by debunking the notion that a specific religion or non-religious view has absolute truth, not by trying to disprove that view outright, because that is futile.

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