The question put to religion by the secular enlightenment in its Freudian and Marxist manifestations is asked in a different way in the age of terrorism. The old question was, “How can otherwise sensible people, in affirming God as a source of meaning, manifest such infantile?”
Now the question has become, “How can people committed to the democratic ideal embrace a belief system that underwrites intolerance and even violence?” To be religious, in the view of many who are not, involves a form of psychological immaturity. But more troubling is the suspicion that religion itself is a fundamental source of radical discord–a suspicion that has its origin in the European wars of religion between Catholics
and Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but which has been broadly renewed since the 9-11 savageries were enacted in the name of Allah.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the suicide-murderers of Al Qaeda (and of Hezbollah, for that matter) are not the only ones to justify violent absolutism by appeals to the divine. America’s War on Terrorism is itself defined by a fervent Manichaeanism that divides the world between good and evil. Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan find religious justifications in their otherwise dissimilar traditions for apocalyptic brinkmanship–as if deities could will Armageddon after all.While there is no moral equivalence between the suicide-murders of Muslim fascists, the exclusionary sacralizing of disputed land by religiously nationalist Jews in Israel, the apocalyptic transcendentalism of nuclear brinkmanship (be it Washington’s or Pyongyang’s), and the Catholic preference of clerical power even over the safety of children–all of these urgent problems from different orders are manifestations of something wrong in the heart of religion.
For detached spectators, the old question has become one question:Would the world be better off without religion?But to ask such a question from within a religious tradition is like asking, Would
the world be better off without desire? An emphasis on the negative consequences of faith can blur the powerful consolations and challenges that religion sponsors. Indeed the impulse to honour transcendent being, and even to recognize it as personal, can serve as much as a check on hubris as a source of it. Yes, there have been Yahweh-sponsored slaughters of Canaanites, the holy wars of Crusaders, and the jihads ancient and recent.
But where Pope Urban II declared “God wills it!” at Clermont in 1095, Pope Paul VI, before the UN General Assembly in 1965, cried “Jamais plus la guerre!”
The great religions, by inviting human beings constantly to surpass themselves,are part of what makes the human project possible. Whatever else these phenomena foster, the three Abrahamic traditions, together with Hinduism, Buddhism, and other established world religions, are organized around compassionate love for the neighbour as the motivating ideal. The great world religions, that is, having been engines of humanistic social change, remain reservoirs of humane moral sensibility. To take an example from the modern Catholic Church’s declared prejudice against violence (Pacem in Terris) could slow the world’s current rush to war, while the Church’s scepticism toward free market capitalism (Progressio Populorum) could mitigate the widening chasm between rich and poor.
Positing an encompassing horizon that is ever beyond reach yet exerting an irresistible pull – and daring to name it
God–the religions both accommodate and explain the human interest in what lies beyond, even within. Mystery, far
from alien or threatening, is thus accounted for as essential to life on earth. Religion helps humans not to flee mystery, but to plumb it.But such is the human condition that in every way that religion can be sacred, it can be trivial; in every way consoling, threatening. A ready source of humility, religion embodies an impulse to triumphalism, too. And the political events referred to above define what is at stake in each religion’s struggle with itself.
This complexity moves the question away from Why religion? to What kind? What in each tradition promotes peace instead of war? Tolerance instead of contempt? Self-criticism instead of smug superiority?Absolute claims are the issue. The challenge for religions of all kinds, but perhaps especially for religions based on narratives of divine revelation, is to make positive assertions of faith that do not simultaneously denigrate the different tenets of faith held by others. Religious denigration is a source of violence.
“There will be no peace among the nations,” the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng has written, “without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. There will be no dialogue between the religions without the investigation of the foundations of the religions.”The new condition of world politics that has brought so much trouble with it is also the source of hope, because formerly triumphalist traditions now have no choice–precisely because of religious elbow-rubbing–but to encounter the truth claims of others. That means that the foundational assumptions of every religion must now be the subject of re-examination.
It is for adherents of each faith to define, but some version of this grappling with fundamental belief can be seen to
be occurring in other religions–certainly in Judaism, where the question of what it is to be a Jew is being asked with
new power. The political crisis of Israel, an entity regarded as originating as a sign of God’s covenant, brings with it
basic religious questions. And so with Islam. The post-9/11 situation of Muslims seems marked by an urgent new introspection in response to the questions of reform, text, attitudes toward the other, and the tradition’s relationship to violence that have been forced by an expressly Islamic outbreak of terror.
Adherents of Islam can easily refute the broad Western suspicion that Islamic devotion may be incompatible with democratic liberalism. But in this task, Muslim reformers have a great resource in the Islamic tradition of convivencia, which, even for the West, was the very incubator of tolerance–political as well as religious.
All of this defines the new shape of religious commitment, and it suggests the kind of ‘investigation’ leading to reform that only the religiously committed can undertake. Each religion must seek ways of tapping into its reservoir of neighbourliness, its foundational assumptions about the goodness of creation, its attitude toward God as the world’s innermost source of love.
Criticism of religion is necessary and, these days, inevitable. But what really counts now is religious self-criticism.
Detached observers among those who are not religious make a mistake to regard this project cynically, because
broad religious reform is essential now to the rescue of the world itself.Democratic values, ideological openness, freedom of conscience, positive regard for those who are different (also known as pluralism), as well as the capacity to tolerate even those who remain intolerant: these pillars of the post-Enlightenment social order will not
stand unless exactly equivalent pillars are erected to reform–and thus secure–the institutions of traditional religion.In short, I believe that religion and the social order are inseparable–which will come as no surprise to anyone who shares my faith that God is inseparable from God’s creation.
By Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad