June 5, 2009

Stop Blaming Religion

For humanity’s sins.

A central tenant of the “new atheism” is that religion is the single greatest threat to humanity. This view has been advanced by such writers as Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), as well as comedian Bill Maher, who concluded his 2008 documentary, Religulous, with the warning that, given religion’s ”power to divert man to destructive courses,” the fate of humanity might very well depend upon our ability to “grow up” and abandon our belief in the supernatural.

In their indictment of religion, such individuals generally point to two main culprits: Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. Christian fundamentalists, they note, tend to be especially jingoistic and militaristic, while Islamic fundamentalists lead the way in terrorist attacks. It therefore follows—or so the new atheists conclude—that religion (especially Christianity and Islam) is the cause of jingoism, militarism, and terrorism. Therefore, our best hope of ridding the world of these evils is to rid the world of religion. Q.E.D.

Now I happen to think that these individuals are dead wrong. Yes, it’s true that many Christians use the New Testament to rationalize their own belligerent nationalism, and it’s true that many Muslims use the Qur’an to rationalize terrorism. But so what? Just because one uses religion to justify violence, it doesn’t follow that religion causes violence.

The source of Christian belief, the New Testament, in no way promotes the belligerent nationalism that characterizes so many modern Evangelicals. Far from laying down the stipulations for “just war,” Jesus preached non-resistance. And although the Apostle Paul seemed to believe that “the governing authorities” were justified in using force against wrongdoers, his ethical teachings echoed Jesus’ message of self-giving love.

The problem with modern Christians, it seems to me, is not that they have too much faith but that they have too little. The average churchgoer is guilty of serving two gods: God and Country. If such idolatry ended, if Christians started loving the Lord their God, and Him alone, then it’s hard to imagine how they could continue down the path that so much of the world finds deplorable.

Unlike the New Testament, the Qur’an doesn’t teach pacifism. (Or maybe I should say, unlike the New Testament, the Qur’an doesn’t teach an almost-but-perhaps-not-quite-pacifism). But, as Bernard Lewis writes, neither does it justify the type of violence that Americans witnessed on September 11th. Lewis, a professor of Near East Studies at Princeton University, is hardly a proponent of Islam. In fact, he’s well known for his neoconservative positions, perhaps most notably his support for the Iraq War. And yet he acknowledges: “At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder. At no point—as far as I am aware—do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders” (The Crisis of Islam 39).

It’s true that many Islamic terrorists claim that they are doing God’s will, but just like their Christian counterparts, their religion is seldom to blame. This point has been made by Robert Pape, who teaches Political Science at the University of Chicago. After compiling a database of every suicide terrorist attack from 1980 through 2003, Pape discovered that there is no causal connection between Islamic fundamentalism and suicide terrorism. (Pape updated his database in early 2008 and again reached the same conclusion.) In fact, he found that the group committing the most suicide attacks was a secular Marxist organization, the Tamil Tigers.

So what then motivates suicide terrorism? Pape summarized the answer in a 2008 interview: “What over 95% of suicide terrorist attacks around the world have in common since 1980 is not religion but a specific strategic objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists consider to be their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon to Chechnya to the West Bank to Sri Lanka to Kashmir and to Iraq and Afghanistan today, suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign military occupation.”

Yes, many Muslims use the Qur’an to rationalize terrorism, just as many Christians use the New Testament to rationalize their own warmongering. But corrupt humans will use just about anything to justify their behavior. This is hardly the fault of religion, which has been a tremendous boon to humanity, the source of untold acts of love and kindness. Contrary to Bill Maher, it seems that our fate might very well depend on our ability, not to rid ourselves of God, but to start taking him seriously.

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