THE BLOG
01/29/2015 11:32 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Defuse the 'Religion Bomb'

In response to the Paris attacks former Vermont Governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean said, "This is a chronic problem. I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They're about as Muslim as I am. I mean, they have no respect for anybody else's life, that's not what the Koran says. Europe has an enormous radical problem. I think ISIS is a cult. Not an Islamic cult. I think it's a cult." French President Hollande said something similar. These two politicians were correct not to disparage Islam and the 1.6 billion Muslims who make up 23% of humanity, but their statements left much to be desired. A more forthright answer would have addressed the problem of religion directly. The painful, powerful, and poignant words of Monsignor Lorenzo Albacate of the St. Joseph Seminary in New York ring out to us especially in the wake of the horrific and violent events in Paris.

Albacate said on the P.B.S program Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, "From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion. Look, I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my life, it's my vocation, it's my existence. I'd give my life for it; I hope to have the courage. Therefore, I know it. And I know, and recognized that day, that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion -- because religion can be a passion -- the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction. When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I wasn't the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew. I recognized it. I recognized this thirst, this demand for the absolute. Because if you don't hang on to the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear. I recognized that this thirst for the never-ending, the permanent, the wonders of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity, that which is different -- these are characteristics of religion. And I knew that that force could take you to do great things. But I knew that there was no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion."

To better understand this power of religious passion, or "the Religious Bomb," as Thomas Cahill names it in Heretics and Heroes, we need to unpackage the many dynamics and components of religion and identity. Identity is about how we perceive ourselves as well as how others perceive us. Saira Yamin points out in Understanding Religious Identity and the Causes of Religious Violence, "Groups represent safety, strength, harmony, and familiarity. They fulfill the needs for bonding, identity, cohesiveness, integrity, recognition and security." Group identity is a very dominant element within human development. Erik Erikson adds to this explaining between the ages of 19 to 40 there is "the crisis of intimacy versus isolation." That is to say, ideally we learn how to balance in healthy ways the giving and receiving love and support. If that crisis is not navigated well there are individuals who can be drawn to more extremist groups to find that support and validation. Males, particularly in this age group, have higher rates of aggressive and destructive attitudes and actions than at other periods of their lives. Group identity also carries with it the danger of what Rabbi Jack Cohen called, "the comparative mode," the us versus them consciousness and orientation.

Group identity, and we all carry more than one group identity simultaneously throughout our lives, is at the core of being a human being. In Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking Marc Gopin writes about "the human need for uniqueness," and "our need for some distinctive identity and meaning system in the context of the mass of humanity and the indifferent character of the universe." That need, while essential, as we have seen when not balanced and properly integrated in a healthy manner can lead to unstable behaviors. To this we now examine the factor of religion.

Scott Thomas explains in the Heather Dubois article Religion and Peacebuilding, "in Europe during the Middle Ages the religious realm conflated with the social and the moral, all of which were sourced from and sustained by community. The sacred and spiritual were an indistinguishable part of a total way of life of social, political, economic, and moral dimensions. In contrast, modernity brought the 'invention of religion' as 'a set of privately held doctrines or beliefs.' This was a gradual process of three centuries that began with an identification of the spiritual within community belief and practice and then developed such that the spiritual was privatized, considered separate from community structure and authority."

"In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religion becomes mobile, divorced from traditional community life. Thomas writes, 'Religion begins to shift from being one of various virtues, supported by practices of an ecclesial community embedded in the Christian tradition, to a system of doctrines or beliefs, which could exist apart from the ecclesial community.' It is this siphoning of sacred and moral authority from its basis in community, necessary for the creation of the secular state, that led to the eventual marginalization of religion in western institutions of politics and international affairs."

"While modernity has affected in some ways the entire globe, the privatization of religion has not been a universal experience for the world's communities. The process and effects of secularization have been halting and mixed. While 78 percent of the world's states are secular, 78.3 percent of the global population adheres to one of the world's five largest religions."

A critical point Dubois and Thomas make is the diminished role of religion in the West. For individuals who find grounding, meaning, and or refuge in religion, the West can be perceived as a direct challenge to that aspect of their identity; and so for some the West becomes a target. Related many regard secular governments in the Arab world as failures which has led to the turn to and the appeal of a greater role of Islam in the governance of certain countries.

This takes us from the general question about religion and extremism to the more specific question about Islam and extremism that we see today from Paris to Nigeria to Iraq/Syria and beyond. First we need to painfully acknowledge that all religions have the potential for extremist tendencies as the 10 million dead in the European Wars of Religion between 1520 and 1648 attests to.

When it comes to Islamist extremists today it may be correct to label their horrific actions as terrorism however that analysis is narrow at best for it addresses the symptom but not the causes. While we need to remember that it is a very very small fraction of a percentage of Muslims who act in these heinous ways; even the smallest smallest fraction of a percentage of 1.6 billion people can add up to too many people. The question that needs to be asked is what are the conditions, the causes, that have allowed for Islamic zealots to grow in numbers and followers, and make the depraved choices that they do?

Whatever the answer is to that question, and that answer will be have to include anthropological, sociological, economic, historic, ideological, and political elements. The painful reality, and challenge, is that for the individuals and groups who carry out these acts they have convinced themselves that they are doing something good. We know too well from the murdered millions of the previous century that religion is not the only rationalization for such brutality.

But the question before us at the beginning of this century is how has a religion been able to be used to justify so many atrocities. We now circle back to Monsignor Albacate who reminded us that there is, "no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion." Something so good, so pure, so holy; something that we should be able to count on to save us and make us safe and help give our lives have meaning, becomes a tormentor and endangers our lives and the world. How can that be?

Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." If we posit that God is the Absolute Power of the Universe and if you think you know what that Absolute Power wants, then by extension that belief can become very corrupting. The first thing erased when someone crosses that line is tolerance for people who may think differently.

The words of Jacob Bronowski challenge that need for the absolute, "There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts. Obedient ghosts. Or Tortured ghosts. It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some 4 million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how men behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of Gods."

It should never be forgotten that one of the most important value in this world is diversity. It is how the world is able to function and exist. We know from the environment the more diversity it has the healthier it is. The coral reefs and rainforests are so important to our world because of their diversity. The Irish Potato Famine which lead to the deaths of 1 million people was caused because of monoculture. The foods we eat should come from diverse sources. Any good portfolio in the stock market will be diverse.

So critical is diversity to our understanding of the world that it is spoken about in many ways at the beginning of the Bible. The Torah opens during the first week of existence where God sees the diversity of everything God created as being "good." When humans are created God finds it "very good," not because the world was all created for us, but because we are the last piece of that vast diverse mosaic that is then complete with its totality of parts. A few chapters later we read about Noah, described as a righteous person who saves the diversity of the animals who find refuge on the ark at the beginning of his story. While at the end of the story God gives Noah a sign of God's covenant with humanity; the rainbow, which is also the symbol of diversity. A rainbow comes from one source, a ray of light, that encounters water, the source of life, and through that process it refracts and creates a diversity of colors.
We next encounter the story of the Tower of Babel. Too often the the babel of languages is understood as a punishment for the humanity, but another reading says the diversity of language was a blessing.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the philosopher, scientist, theologian, and brother of the great Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz who grew up in Poland at the beginning of the last century and saw the horrors that happened there, said that if you look at Babel it is a place where everyone speaks one language and where the whole society is focused on one thing. He says it is a description of a fascist society, where the value of an individual and diversity is worthless. In Leibowitz's reading of the text, the babel of languages at the end of the account is a corrective back to how things had been and are supposed to be.

So essential is diversity to our all aspects of life and our world the Bible, as noted, begins with four messages about diversity within its first eleven chapters. Even the Talmud reminds us of the importance of diversity, including diverse opinions, as the rabbis are paired with rabbis they disagree with. The world is better off and stronger with its montage of religions, languages, cultures, etc. A religious voice that espouses an opposition to diversity, may be a voice, and if it claims to be religious then it is a corrupted religious voice. Pope Francis I said in the aftermath of Paris, "Religious fundamentalism, even before it eliminates human beings by perpetrating horrendous killings, eliminates God himself, turning Him into a mere ideological pretext."

Abraham's willingness to offer up one of his sons is considered by many to be the very model of religious love of God and obedience. That is to say murder in the name of God can be seen as holy. The problem with that reading is that Abraham's son is not sacrificed; and that is precisely the point. At that moment when Abraham is so sure that God wants him to murder his own flesh and blood, at the moment of extreme zealous religious fervor he is able to hear a different voice that says that is not what God desires. That voice within all religions is its authentic call and must be cultivated.

All religions have elements that can be misused. The voice within religions that must be nurtured is "the voice inside us that calls us," as Rav Kook teaches in his Introduction to the Sabbath of the Land, "to be kind, truthful, and merciful." Hinduism, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam all profess a variation of the Golden Rule. To that should be added the words of Micah (6:8), "What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God."

This blog first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on January 15, 2015