Fighting back against religious extremism

ON THE very first page of his new book, Not in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi in the UK, quotes the 17th-century French scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”.

There is no shortage of historical evidence to support Pascal’s contention. Indeed, if he were writing in the 21st century instead of the 17th, he’d have sufficient material for several books. In particular today he would be able to draw on the violent eruptions of Islamic fundamentalism, especially since 9/11.

But the link between religion and violence (the latter being the most pernicious manifestation of evil) is by no means an Islamic phenomenon, though, as we are reminded almost daily in our newspapers and on our television screens, it is predominantly the evils of Islamic State (IS) that at the present time constitute the greatest worry and threat, as well as representing the greatest challenge.

Having sub-titled his book ‘Confronting Religious Violence’, Sacks sets out to take up this challenge. The task is a daunting one. “Too often in the history of religion,” he writes, “people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practised cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.”

Sacks concedes that while Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — the three great monotheistic religions, the three great Abrahamic faiths — define themselves as religions of peace, “they have all given rise to violence at some points in their history”.

Since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC, in particular, we have seen an outpouring of articles and books on the connection between religion and violence.

From all of this, the author says, three answers have emerged:

Religion is the major source of violence;
Religion is not a source of violence;
“Their religion, yes; our religion, no — we are for peace they are for war”.
He concludes that none of these answers is true.

“As for the first, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,800 conflicts in the Encyclopedia of Wars and found that less than 10% involved religion at all. A “God and War” survey commissioned by the BBC found that religion played some part in 40% of conflicts but usually a minor one.

“The second answer is misguided. When terrorist or military groups invoke holy war, define their battle as a struggle against Satan, condemn unbelievers to death and commit murder while declaring ‘God is great’, to deny that they are acting on religious motives is absurd.

“The third is a classic instance of in-group bias. Almost invariably people regard their group as superior to others… Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority.”

The focus today, he suggests, should be less on the general connection between religion and violence and more on the specific challenge of politicised religious extremism in the 21st century.

“The re-emergence of religion as a global force caught the West unprotected and unprepared because it was in the grip of a narrative that told a quite different story.”

The process of secularisation — a process that began back in the 18th century with the Enlightenment — has been at the heart of this narrative.

“By the late 20th century, most secularists had come to the conclusion that religion, if not refuted, had at least been rendered redundant. We no longer need the Bible to explain the universe. Instead we have science. We do not need sacred ritual to control human destiny.

“In its place we have technology. When we are ill, we do not need prayer. We have doctors, medicine and surgery. If we are depressed there is an alternative to religious consolation: Antidepressant drugs. When we feel overwhelmed by guilt, we can choose psychotherapy in place of the confessional. For seekers of transcendence there are rock concerts and sports matches.”

But as Sacks then reminds us, what the secularists forget is that man is a “meaning-seeking” animal.

“If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make these choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to choose but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose.”

The result, he stresses, is that the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.

“Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning. That is why no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion. The 20th century showed, brutally and definitively, that the great modern substitutes for religion — the nation, the race, and political ideology — are no less likely to offer human sacrifices to their surrogate deities.”

The problem today is that the religion that has returned is “religion at its most adversarial and aggressive, prepared to do battle with the enemies of the Lord”, leading Sacks to conclude that the “greatest threat to freedom in the post-modern world is radical, politicised religion”.

How to combat this is now the great challenge. Radical, politicised religion is on the rise. As we are seeing in Syria and other places in the Middle East, religious extremists are seizing power.

And they are using technology very effectively — the internet spreads the contagion represented by groups such as al Qaeda, Boko Harem and Islamic State in a way that would have been unknown 30 or 40 years ago.

“What printing was to the Reformation, the internet is to radical political Islam, turning it into a global force capable of inciting terror and winning recruits throughout the world… Religious radicals use the new electronic media with greater sophistication than their secular counterparts. And they have developed organisational structures to fit our time.”

This poses an enormous challenge – but it is a challenge not just for Islam but for Judaism and Christianity as well for, as Sacks acknowledges, “none of the great religions can say, in unflinching self-knowledge, ‘Our hands never shed blood’.”

This means, he says, that we have little choice but to re-examine the theology that leads to violent conflict.

“As Jews, Christians and Muslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers? Have we read our sacred texts correctly?”

And he sounds this sombre warning: “If we do not do the theological work, we will face a continuation of the terror that has marked our century thus far, for it has no other natural end”.

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.irishexaminer.com

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