THE BLOG
01/08/2015 06:08 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Religion, Atheism and Terror

Religious people can unnerve me.

Some can be as hostile, discriminating and as violent as those in the secular world. Religion is at the forefront of world turmoil, at the very center of global terror. Today, religion -- even if people declare it "hijacked" -- can no longer pretend to be a promise of paradise and peace. It's much harder to "buy into" the happiness or success of television evangelists; and it's almost unreasonable to justify the ugliness of terrorism as being entirely unrelated to religion. The notion that religion is therapeutic or escapist, that it somehow solves life's problems, is not just frankly disputed but flatly derided. Religion today is instead characterized by tension and fear, uncertainty and anxiety. As I cringe before the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I wonder if the question sometimes is not atheism versus religion, but the 21st century versus the dark ages!

It is no surprise then that a study by the American fact-tank Pew Research revealed "nones" -- those declaring themselves as "religiously unaffiliated," including atheists and agnostics -- to be on the rise. Another recent Pew survey indicated that a third of the 198 countries and territories studied in 2012 had a high level of social hostilities involving religion. Nonetheless, few people can appreciate that atheism may in fact stand for more than a guiltless espousal of mowing the lawn on Sunday morning. Scarcely any one suspects that agnosticism may actually disclose an aversion to a "chicken soup for the soul" mentality or a deeper ennui with traditional rite. Young men and women are infatuated with the East, near and afar, whether as fascination with anti-western antipathy or else through indoctrination by anti-American ideology.

Don't get me wrong: in the United States, the numbers are still staggeringly in favor of theism over atheism. But overall they have dropped so that only 57 percent of Americans feel that religion can directly respond to most of life's challenges -- compared to 82 percent five decades ago. The erosion of religion is both patent and blatant. It seems there is an unprecedented rise in social hostility and sectarian violence related to religion. Or is it the other way around: the decline in religious affiliation and belief has caused the rise in social hostility and sectarian violence? Religious extremists -- and they include Christians -- know this is the cause and decry tolerance and openness. They have set out to correct the situation with zero tolerance for others. Religion may be on the decline; but unbelief, too, is on the cross.

In the struggle for religion to survive in a secular world, what is seldom noticed is how religion itself is frequently the problem. So we look for the devil elsewhere, outside, and forget that the devil comes "as an angel of light" from within, often assuming the forms and forces of religion itself. I sometimes wonder: why do people not choose instead to protect the integrity of religion and society alike by issuing a healthy challenge against hijacked religious convictions that invade public space?

In some ways, then, it is arguably easier to live in a world of atheism or indifference than to live in a world of religiosity and conviction. It is so dangerous, albeit so tempting, to transform religion -- whether in the guise of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or for that matter any other faith -- into a self-serving reality, which provides blanket security, support or satisfaction: The fact that religion may be "advantageous" for business, investment or consumerism; the fact that it may prove "convenient" for politics, nationalism, or even church lobbies; the fact that it may somehow resolve issues of national security or widespread fear of terror. We have developed a notion where religion is expedient, therapeutic and respectable -- socially, culturally, and even politically. Another study reveals reluctance on the part of politicians to admit agnosticism because their constituents could never conceive a leader without religious tenets.

The Christian teachings and revolutionary maxims -- the admonition to "love one's enemies" and the conviction that "you cannot love God if you hate your neighbor" -- actually go against the grain and gut of what it means to live in the world. They are nearly impossible to fulfill. If we readily appreciate one truth after so many centuries of conflict and war, it is the fact that people cannot unite except against a common enemy. Even when people seemingly do the right thing, such as speak for the poor and the oppressed, it is sometimes out of hatred for the wealthy and the oppressors. People want an easy way out; denial is always simpler and painless. And people want to differ from others -- after all, isn't the most ancient of vices the sin of pride and arrogance?

Even so, the fact that religion survives, that no single faith has overcome or overwhelmed another, suggests the case for a more ecumenical view of religion, that our common humanity is the most precious gift that we share. And in this respect, atheists and "nones" can remind us of the priority of humanity and the primacy of tolerance in our world. We have to accept that we are like others; and we have to like others. Any form of division or dichotomy, of disengagement or dogmatism, can never ultimately prove enduring. Rather, religious encounter and cultural interaction has always generated coexistence and convivencia, which could traverse with remarkable ease across seemingly "impermeable barriers and impenetrable boundaries of confessional identity" (David Cannadine, The Undivided Past, Vintage, 2013, 36).

In tenth-century Constantinople, the mystic Symeon, the new theologian, dared propose that heaven and hell are nothing else -- and nothing less -- than our daily interactions with other people. Heaven and hell have more to do with the way we treat other people and our planet than how we might imagine an intrusive or indifferent deity in the distant heavens. They're not fictitious or man-made realities fabricated to encourage moral conduct.

And in this daily interaction, religious moderation and interfaith dialogue are both compelling and appealing alternatives to interracial hostility and religious bloodshed. This statement may reverberate like a cliché or simplistic slogan. Yet, it bears expression and reiteration -- emphatically and persistently -- in the aftermath of 9/11 and a world intimidated by the Islamic State. Openness and toleration are the only substitute for hate and violence.