(Editor’s Note: The following post is based on the author’s own unscientific observations after being immersed as a non-participant observer within certain groups in and around the New York City area for two years as a way to learn how left-wing religious activists shape their perceptions and how their groups operate.)
Every faith has its Martyrs. To cite a few examples, the Jews have the Maccabees, Christians have Jesus Christ and numerous saints; in the Islamic faith, to be a Shahid is a great form of pride, Hinduism has Mahabharata and Sikhism has the concept of Shaheed. Theology works to spin moralistic mythologies and other stories of saints, gods, and prophets which work to extend a message over time and distance that because an individual or deity sacrificed, so should the believer within a particular faith sacrifice in the name of said martyr.
But I conclude, based on my observations, that the need for religious martyrdom is really an ego need to feel both superior for the sake of a subjective ideal as well feel like a victim or seek out supposed victims and share a self-defined collective pain.
In some cases, this means people with good intentions go into areas of conflict and help the wounded or sick. In others, modern American religious martyrs will take up a cause in a local or international conflict, ensuring they take a self-important, superficial but very political stand and then return to the comfort of their home and its niceties. All the while feeling like they’ve made a difference, which indeed they have for themselves psychologically and their small group of fellow believers, but not towards any successful long-term resolution of any conflict.
Ironically, even religious people can see martyrdom as a harmful, complex and disconcerting set of beliefs. In the landmark article, “The Emotional Health of the Clergy,” Paul Johnson writes about how religious passion leads to a kind of self-loathing:
“Many ministers will advise young people, ‘Don’t be a minister if you can stay out of it,’ as if it was the least desirable of professions. Is this not a form of self-hatred masking as pride and noble sacrifice? It seems to have the flavor of a martyr gloating over how much he gives up to be a holy man.”
Modern psychologists see today’s religious martyrs as needing to feel pain to feel alive. Their martyrdom is defined by a willful acceptance of suffering in the name of religious duty.
In modern times, religious martyrs also known as "witnesses” are mostly those on the religious left of their faiths. Those who witness continue the need to be seen as a victim or as collaborators with those who they themselves deem or otherwise decree to be victims. Frequently, this is a political act based on subjective religious teachings.
In a free society, each person is allowed to be active and aware based on their beliefs. However, many people who claim the mantle of faith for their martyrdom or the reason for their pursuit of self-defined "social justice" are usually doing two things which may make them feel good, but actually perpetuate hate and violence.
The first is aligning oneself to a group or movement without accepting or knowing all the facts. For modern religious witnesses, it is better to accept the word of supposed victims, authority figures or other like-minded group members rather than assume the problem is wider, historic, or that the "victimhood" is self-caused or perhaps the victims are themselves perpetrators of violence.
In this way, religious martyrdom is self-congratulatory and serves as a device for small groups of like-minded people, creating a segmented network for the sake of perpetuating their specific need to feel like victims.
The work done in the name of faith does not help the cause of humanity, but helps to support the individual or group’s collective ego in the illusion of helping humanity. Frankly, I found these groups to be both dangerous and destabilizing, offering unconnected hate-groups legitimacy while seeing those who disagree with their ideas and actions as oppressors rather than offering more rational counter-arguments.
Second, the idea of witnessing is one of myopia. Ask any detective, they will tell you witnesses to an event will see and remember things differently. This means that the mind drives self-accepted perceptions and assumptions about the world into the already formed world-view of the witness.
Witnessing and knowing are two different things. We can witness a riot and believe the rioters are just although they are violent, or we can witness the discovery of the Higgs boson particle and then know something is real. In the first case the witness can act or be wrong about the purpose and intention of the crowd. In the second a witness can see reality as it is shown through scientific discovery.
Personally, I do not believe being a religious martyr or witnessing can serve any purpose which cannot be handled via secular politics and other non-violent movements. There are plenty of faithless individuals and organizations which feed and clothe the poor, fight against discrimination, attempt to end state violence, but they do not look to a faith to take action. They take action to help humanity, not to try to imitate, or get closer to their "god" or win points to go to their heaven.
The recent secular uprisings in the Middle-east serve as an excellent modern example of how people will put their lives on the line in their attempt to liberate themselves from dictators and theocracy. This, in an effort to create democratic governments and further the rights of all people under international human rights laws. Those who protested deserve the respect and support of the entire secular world community.
We also must acknowledge that there is suffering and real pain in the world and that peace, rather than social justice, should be the goal for anyone with a conscience. We can and should stand up for our beliefs but believing you are acting in the name of a religion is itself self-limiting since all faiths believe theirs is the one true theology.
Indeed, religious and secular organizations can work together on numerous agreed upon social issues such as ethnic, civil, LGBT, and human rights. However, it does mean the motivation of the groups while they may briefly dovetail, will create long-term partnerships.
Eventually a disconnect forms since secular humanist values include the idea that we can be free from religious motivation, be good without god, still act morally and create secular laws which help all people. While religious activists cannot give up their faith since they define themselves by their theology and religious law or dogma.
Atheist and humanist activism in this sense equates to secular freedom for everyone while religious martyrdom is a form of slavery and commitment to a theistic set of principles to benefit a select few.