Comment below: It’s the theology, stupid (paraphrasing Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid”); Responding to the meaning impulse in human consciousness- theology; Re-affirming the wonder of being human- countering the persistence of anti-humanism in mythology, religion, and ideology; More on exploring the full extent of human liberation; Humanity’s old story (grand narrative) and the confusion over imperfection in the world; Brief summary of bad ideas, Brief history of descent of bad ideas; Site projects- Devastating outcomes of apocalyptic exaggeration, The Christian role in this mess, The Christian scandal- burying the diamond of Jesus (yes, Jefferson and Tolstoy again); More on the profound contradiction between Jesus and Paul; and some comment on Grosso’s excellent article on fear of after-life harm- the primal human fear and the atheist response.
Being a generous person, I have included something in the comment below to offend everyone, both religious people and atheists. Just kidding, but perhaps offering a little “trigger warning”. Also, carefully note my response to the potential complaint of Islamophobia. I place Islam within the larger Western religious context, within the theological tradition of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity. That theology/mythology is the core issue, not any one isolated version of it. Islam shares the very same theological heritage that has also produced violent outcomes in the other Western traditions that have embraced apocalyptic mythology, notably Judaism and Christianity. (Note: Over the past few centuries Christianity has learned to moderate and abandon the violence of its past- i.e. the Crusades and slaughter of Muslims, the repeated slaughter of Jews, the inquisitions and witch-hunts, and the endless torture and killing of heretics.)
Now a few balancing qualifiers to calm religious nerves and to affirm the majority moderate populations in our major world religious traditions:
First, the Christian tradition holds the “single greatest discovery” in the history of human thought- the statement by Historical Jesus (someone entirely opposite to Christian Jesus) that God is absolutely no conditions Love (i.e. the Matt.5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36 summaries). James Robinson called the discovery of Jesus “his greatest contribution to the history of ideas”, referring specifically to the non-retaliatory element in Jesus’ theology (“a stunning new non-retaliatory theology”).
Unfortunately, the early Christians buried that discovery in the larger context of the New Testament that presented a God who demanded that supreme conditions be met before forgiveness would be offered (i.e. the death of the Christ to pay for sin, and the demand to believe this conditional gospel). For unbelievers that did not accept the Christian conditions it would be the ultimate retaliation of eternal punishment and destruction. Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy tried to make this point that the central theme of Jesus- his “diamond/pearl” discovery on unconditional love- had been buried in the wider New Testament teaching on an angry, punitive God demanding a supreme condition as requisite to acceptance and forgiveness.
Another balancing qualifier: Care is exercised here to distinguish between the humane features that people have projected onto their highest ideals and authorities (onto deity), and other subhuman or inhumane features, what some call “bad religious ideas” (Sam Harris). The humane is to be affirmed while the inhumane is to be condemned, anywhere that it is found. Human liberation must include the full liberation from things now broadly considered to be inhuman in any other area of life. The point? It is important to engage and reform/replace subhuman religious ideas as they continue to have a harmful impact on human consciousness and society. The “sacred” cannot be exempted from the project to fully humanize- to make fully humane- all areas of life.
If for no other reason, we should encourage people to fully humanize their views of God because “we become just like the God that we believe in”. This is about the age-old human impulse to base behavior on similar belief, and the outcomes of this practice. Bad ideas can incite or validate bad behavior.
Setting the larger context:
I am puzzled at military officials and other public commentators- experts on violence- that appear unable to directly confront and deal with one of the central elements behind the religious violence from the ISIS and Al Qaeda movements- the element of theology, or God.
Theology (apocalyptic mythology- i.e. ultimate or metaphysical Threat, revenge of Gaia, angry planet, karma) is also one of the core inciting elements behind environmental alarmism and its devastating outcomes, which have been far worse than the damage from religious violence, according to Bob Brinsmead. Numerous people have commented on the apocalyptic theme in contemporary environmentalism (“the end is nigh”) but do not go on to nail the theology at the root of that theme. This site details some of the core myths and historical background of environmental alarmism. I have always understood that in basic problem solving you need to include root causes, all the elements that contribute to any given problem.
Some commentators on religious violence appear to get close when they state that “We must win the battle of ideas, the ideological battle”. But ideology has more to do with economics and politics. It is still not getting to the root issue of theology. Fareed Zakaria in “Why They Hate Us” seemed to be getting close to fingering theology as playing a key inciting role in religious violence but then, confusingly, he backed off at the end of that documentary to conclude that the main culprit behind religious violence was politics, not theology. Huh?
ISIS leaders state clearly that theology is their ultimate motivation to commit terror (see, for example, Sam Harris’ comment “What Do Jihadists Really Want?”). Their primary motivation is not politics, economics, US foreign intervention, personal criminal histories, or Western social corruption. Yes, these elements are also part of the mix of inciting motivations. But do not neglect the central inciting role of theology.
In the final moments just before a suicide bomber presses the button on his/her vest, or opens fire in some crowded theater or market place, he/she does not scream ideology, politics, economics, personal criminal history, Western social corruption, or US intervention in the Mid East. No. Listen carefully- they shout “God” (specifically, “God is great”). They appeal to theology. And they are referring to a particular view of God as vengeful, retaliatory, punishing, and demanding the violent destruction of unbelievers. That view of God enables them to get past the last shreds of human restraint in their consciousness. It is an appeal to the ultimate motivation that enables them to commit terror. You see this appeal to a God that demands violent punishment all through the documentary “Terror in Mumbai”. See also Wafa Sultan’s “A God Who Hates”.
Until we deal with the theological issue at the core of religious violence, and also behind environmental alarmism, we are not fully solving these problems for the long-term future. They will continue to erupt in new versions just as they have in varied traditions across past history. Again, the same core theological themes are found behind religious violence, “secular” mass-death movements like Marxism and Nazism (i.e. apocalyptic millennialism, see Richard Landes’ “Heaven On Earth”), and environmental alarmism. The same “Master Terrorist” plays his inciting role behind all these destructive movements. Read the rest of the opening comment here