08/07/2012 06:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Old Time Religion Fuels America's Climate of Hate

Hate is much like climate: just as a single weather event implies nothing about global warming, no one has any business generalizing from a terrible incident like the massacre in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The humane thing to do is to send our sympathy, help and, if you are so inclined, prayers to the victims and their families.

That didn't stop televangelist Pat Robertson from taking advantage of the moment to blame atheists for the slaughter.

But here's the thing: All we know for sure about the alleged killer, Wade Page, is that he is a tattoo-certified neo-Nazi loser. So, until we know more, here are my last words on the temple shooting: My heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones, the police officers who nearly lost a brave brother, and to Sikhs all over America.

Now, let us move on to climate change: Just as the average temperature has been going up over the last decade, so religiously motivated hate crimes are on the rise. I reviewed the FBI's hate crime statistics for the years 2004-2010 (the latest year available), and found that religion as the explicit motive for hate has jumped by nearly a quarter from 16.4 percent to 20 percent of all hate crimes.

To learn that religion now fuels one-in-five hate crimes should raise concerns. But there's more: hate crimes against gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities have risen even faster. Together, the two categories come to about 40 percent of all reported hate crimes. Is there a connection?

Well, duh, you may say. Still, it's best to nail these things down, and fortunately, psychologist Kelly Trevino and colleagues have done just that in a journal article published in April. Anti-gay bias, they found, is directly linked to the feeling that Christian values are desecrated by tolerance of homosexuality. The more that people imbibe messages telling them that Christian values are under threat, the stronger their anti-gay bias becomes.

But does that really translate into hate? You betcha. Here's Pastor Charles Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church to tell ya how we oughta put all the gay men in one concentration camp and the lesbians in another and then just wait for them to die.

Now, hate and hate crimes are two different things. The first may be despicable but it remains protected free speech. A hate crime adds to mix assault, rape, murder, arson or other hideous acts that you'd think God-fearing people would oppose. But rightwing Christian groups locked arms in opposition to a federal hate crimes bill, delaying its passage for a dozen years.

Why would churchgoers battle a bill aimed at deterring vicious crimes like the torture-murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd? Well, in part it's because they are fed on a steady diet of fearmongering lies from the rightwing media. "What you say from the pulpit could literally become illegal," the Family Research Council wrote to conservative pastors to rally their opposition to the hate crimes act.

They must know that, thanks to the First Amendment and the Supreme Court, short of falsely shouting "fire" in a crowded church nothing anyone says from the pulpit can be criminalized. Yet, fear overwhelms reason. And that brings us full circle.

Hate has deep roots in human nature. Evolutionary psychology is just beginning to trace its filaments back to our ancestral environment, when people lived in small, migratory bands. On meeting strangers, to flee or attack were often the only safe choices. Fear and hate are the emotions that activate those responses. Little wonder, then, that fear and hatred of "the Other" became common features of humanity.

For millennia, religion served to enforce harmony within groups but did nothing to stifle war, genocide or the exploitation of other peoples. (You can read all about it in Deuteronomy!) The wonder is that societies and religions co-evolved a better way: in just the last few centuries we have developed government based on the consent of the governed, institutions based on the principle of fairness, and religions based on universal compassion, equality and progress.

That drives reactionary religionists mad. Whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew, the adherents of Old Time Religion fear that an erosion of authority -- God's authority! -- will bring punishment, humiliation and ruin upon their community -- just as, say, 10,000 years ago, letting down your guard might have let a marauding band enter the encampment to kill the men and carry off the women and children. You can only run for so long. When there's nowhere to flee, fear turns to hate.

Today, there is nowhere to run. We're all mixed together in one world. Those of us who are proud to call ourselves liberal, progressive and compassionate -- we also harbor the instinct to hate. I watch Pastor Worley strutting about or look at the crazed eyes of Wade Page, James Holmes or Jared Loughner, and I can feel rage course through my veins. "Killing's too good for them," my instinct screams. But that's no answer. It just takes us back to the primeval days, when the threat of vengeance was the only way to ensure that you and yours would be feared enough to avoid enslavement or slaughter.

Fortunately, we can rise above our instincts. We can take to heart the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." It begins with understanding.