Faith-Based Violence and Religious Zealotry

When an interviewer for the Britain-based Independent asked celebrity journalist Christopher Hitchens what he considered the real axis of evil, he replied “Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the three leading monotheisms.”

For Hitchens, a left-leaning contrarian who seems to relish provoking outrage, that answer was perfect. But the British-born writer is also a favorite of conservatives for his enthusiastic support of the war on terrorism.

He has condemned the Islamist radicals of Al Qaeda and similar groups as Islamo-facists, coining a term that has gained global utility. Hitchens’ point is constant: Religion is a dangerous thing.

He limited his indictment to the three Abrahamic religions, but Hitchens needn’t have stopped there. Just witness the recent carnage in northeastern India, where Hindus and Muslims are locked in a communal death dance. In Sri Lanka, it’s Buddhists versus Hindus. It’s Christians versus Muslims in Nigeria, Protestants versus Catholics in Northern Ireland and Orthodox versus Catholics versus Muslims in what was Yugoslavia. And then there’s the Sudan, Israel, Indonesia, etc.

Point a figure at the globe and you’re likely to find religious turmoil. And history offers no refuge; some of humanity’s most vicious battles were faith-based. Despite this damning evidence, few contemporary social critics (other than the pugnacious Hitchens) seem willing to take religion to task for the evil it has ushered into the world.

We tend to follow the advice to “never argue about religion,” and give belief a pass. But that advice obscures a very uncomfortable truth: religion is unreasonable.

The “leap of faith” required for religious belief always trumps reason.

In the past, public figures were much more willing to criticize the influence of religion than they are today. Celebrated figures like poet/journalist Robert Frost, physicist Albert Einstein, education theorist John Dewey and writer Mark Twain, among others, often expressed misgivings about religion’s irrational aspects.

Columnist H.L. Mencken, who was extremely popular during the 1920s and 1930s, was well-known for his skeptical notions about religious piety. “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable,” he famously wrote. “One seldom discovers a true believer that is worth knowing,” he added. Media watchers would be hard-pressed to find any mainstream columnist as openly skeptical about religion as was Mencken.

These days, everyone from politicians to athletes reflexively parrot “God Bless America” at every opportunity—an act of such chauvinistic hubris it can’t help but make others wonder what pious Americans want for the rest of humanity.

That global anxiety grows in intensity as the Bush administration continues to drop hints about its sense of religious providence in this terrorism war. The president insists on using theological code words like “evildoers” and “axis of evil.”

Meanwhile, John Ashcroft continues to cast the terrorism war as a religious crusade. Ashcroft, the U.S. attorney general, told an audience of Christian broadcasters last month that “We are a nation called to defend freedom—a freedom that is not the grant of any government or document, but is our endowment from God.”

In other words, one of our most important constitutional officers apparently believes the Constitution (which explicitly prohibits a state religion) is extraneous.

Ashcroft made these remarks fresh from an interview with right-wing commentator Cal Thomas in which he reportedly said, “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.” This is from the head of an agency that just announced it will round up about 3,000 more sons of Islam for questioning; adding to the thousands it already has probed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

The initial round of interviews that began in November has reached nearly 2,300 people but reportedly has elicited few clues about the attacks.

Added to this mix are the remarks of TV preacher Pat Robertson who, on his “700 Club” program, attacked Islam as a violent religious tradition that is trying to take over the world.

With religious demagogues like Robertson and his cohorts spreading such sectarian poison, the need for sober secularism is more profound than ever. Unfortunately, that need is unlikely to be filled by the Bush administration.

Originally published on Monday, March 25, 2002 in the Chicago Tribune.  Reprinted with permission of the author.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times
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Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune The American Muslim does not claim primary copyright on the source material.  Reprinted in The American Muslim with permission of the author.  If you wish to reprint the entire article, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder.