Blaming Religion for Sept. 11

Belief Systems Foster Violence, Some Critics Contend

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LONDON, NOV. 10, 2001 ( Some observers think organized religion is to blame for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And they have not been bashful about saying it.

In the Guardian newspaper on Sept. 15, Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University and author of books such as "The Selfish Gene," compared the suicide terrorists to pigeons and accused religion of being a system of mind control.

"Testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world might be desperate enough to go for 72 private virgins in the next," he wrote, referring to the promises of an Islamic paradise made to those who die martyrs.

Dawkins thinks that religion devalues the meaning of life because it "teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end."

In the Spanish daily El País on Sept. 27, "lay theologian" E. Miret Magdalena contended that violence and religion go hand in hand. From the stories of the Old Testament up to the recent conflicts in Yugoslavia, Magdalena finds that history is full of examples of violence being carried out in the name of God.

In the same newspaper, Eduardo Haro Teclgen on Oct. 30 stated that the "great assassins" of the world have invented gods to justify their crimes, their wars and their accumulation of riches. He called for an end to the gods that have caused 2,000 years of bloodshed.

For Paul Handley, professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, the main religions foster a worldview that others are evil and have to be exterminated. Writing in the Independent on Sept. 30, Handley opines that religion is "the symbolic or mythical expression of our tribal identity, and our right to hate those of the other tribe."

His solution: "It would be far, far better if people could be brought to feel guilty about some other common words: words like faith and orthodoxy, or God, Allah and Jahweh."

A "monster"?

In the Scottish Sunday Herald on Oct. 7, Muriel Gray wrote about "that ugly many-headed monster, religion." Commenting on the plans of the English government to prohibit religious hate, she asked: "Will you be able to express the opinion that Catholicism is guilty of deliberate Third World social engineering that threatens women´s lives with Dark Age views on sexuality and contraception?"

Gray continued: "I most certainly and unambiguously hate religion, and I use the word hate quite deliberately. ... [T]he vain and childish belief in an afterlife diminishes responsibility and accountability in this one."

In the Observer on Oct. 7, Nick Cohen characterized the Koran as "an encyclopedia of instructions to fight and kill unbelievers; to cast terror in their hearts, smite their necks and cut off their fingertips." And as for the "secular Arabs" in the midst of the Jewish-Muslim conflict in the Middle East, Cohen compared them to the fate of the "Poles trapped between Hitler and Stalin."

In the Oct. 11 edition of the Age newspaper of Melbourne, Australia, Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, argued that the real enemy behind the terrorist attacks is religious fundamentalism.

President George W. Bush should "engage in an intensive effort to educate people around the world in the reasons why we should treat supposedly sacred religious texts as human creations, no less fallible than other human creations," urged Singer.

But he then went on to say that Bush is not able to fight against religious extremism because he regularly reads the Bible and affirms that his faith helps him.

The Princeton professor recommends investing more in education because "it is possible to hope that a highly educated nation will provide a less fertile soil for religious belief."

In the Oct. 5 edition of the Guardian, journalist Polly Toynbee muses that the world would be better off with a debilitated religion. "The only good religion is a moribund religion: only when the faithful are weak are they tolerant and peaceful," Toynbee claimed.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on Oct. 30, religion correspondent Chris McGillion took the opportunity to take a jab at the Catholic Church. McGillion argued that the religious fundamentalism of Osama bin Laden is "primarily a mind-set" that is not exclusive to Islam.

He then went on to report the comments by John D´Arcy May, a scholar in ecumenism and religious pluralism at Trinity College, Dublin, who recently spoke in Sydney. According to May, fundamentalism is also present in "the centralising tendencies within his own Catholic Church."

McGillion concluded: "It is easy to identify the fundamentalists in other people´s religion. More than ever, however, it is necessary to identify them in our own."

Religion defended

The critics of religion haven´t gone unchallenged. In the Guardian on Sept. 22, the Reverend Dr. Jane Shaw, dean of divinity and chaplain and fellow of New College, Oxford, replied to Richard Dawkins, the religion-as-mind-control theorist.

Shaw admitted that religion can be used to justify violence, but pointed out that "all belief systems, all value systems, can be used for evil or good -- including science."

She also observed how in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the two great Christian commandments -- "Love thy God" and "Love thy neighbor as thyself" -- were widely practiced by strangers who helped others.

For journalist and author Vincent Carroll, writing Sept. 26 for National Review Online, it is "reckless and misleading to label Christianity a warmongering faith."

Carroll noted that while some have used their Christian faith for aggression "the important opponents of war, persecution, oppression and slavery in the history of the West have also been driven by religious conviction."

Moreover, ideologies such as nationalism are also often responsible for violence. Behind many seemingly religious conflicts often lie ethnic divisions, affirmed Carroll. And the 20th century´s biggest causes of carnage, Communism and Nazism, were hostile to religion.

Concerning the relationship of the Church and secular society, John Paul II in his apostolic letter "Novo Millennio Inuente" stated: "The Church´s relationship with civil society should respect the latter´s autonomy and areas of competence" (No. 52).

At the same time, the Pontiff warned that "we must reject the temptation to offer a privatized and individualistic spirituality which ill accords with the demands of charity, to say nothing of the implications of the Incarnation and, in the last analysis, of Christianity´s eschatological tension."

The Pope is conscious of what he calls "our human weakness, which so often renders us opaque and full of shadows." But in this new millennium, believers are called to be the "reflection" of the light of Christ for today´s world (see No. 54).

Which is to say, human weakness shouldn´t be confused with the nature of religion as such.