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Commentary: Paris, ‘Religious Violence’ Myth and How Splintered Beliefs Plague the West

British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead opined that in an age when organized religion is in full retreat, a multitude of little ‘religions’ or specialized beliefs spring up.

We observe the fading Christian monotheism of post-World War I England and Europe in his 1925 assessment, and then its replacement with fascism, hyper-nationalism, and vicious Soviet communism in the 1930s. 

World religions scholar Karen Armstrong, meanwhile, informs us that our Founding Fathers’ insistence on complete separation of church and state, enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, has led to a bizarre misunderstanding of religion and faith: “While [such] separation could be beneficial to both church and state, it was not, as Jefferson assumed, written into the very nature of things but was a modern innovation.” 

We who dwell in the 21st century Anthropocene Age have inherited memories of the tremendously destructive 20th century wars and genocides, and we remain intellectually and morally trapped betwixt civilization and ISIS, between the concentration camp, terrorism, and mushroom cloud. 

Modern organized Christianity, righteously ridiculed as a “slave morality” by Nietzsche in the 1880s, had no answer to World War I’s mechanized slaughter, or to “Auschwitz” or Stalinism; and with few exceptions the Church followed orders from the dominant political hierarchy of the day (e.g. Pope Pius XII, “Hitler’s Pope”). 

Notwithstanding British geneticist Richard Dawkins’s emotional evangelism for atheism in The God Delusion, we know today that we have already witnessed a triumph of secularism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This materialistic ethos pervades the postmodern USA and Europe, and essentially weakens the individual’s connection to universal “values” in our highly distracted imperial civilization. The evanescent “becoming” world trumps the eternal world of “being.”

When wars occur, “believers” in materialistic reason too frequently blame “religion” and cite the outdated myth of religious violence. The recent outbursts of incoherent Islamophobia following the horrible Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks confirm manic belief in religiously-inspired violence.

Yet there had been little outcry over the 43 murdered in Lebanon on Nov. 12, the day before; when it’s Paris, a key Western symbol, Islamophobia roars in wild rage against a religion. 

Armstrong contends that this insistence on the religious origins of violent terrorism stems partly from the famous “wall” that our Founding Fathers’ sought to impose between individual religious belief and government intrusion into those beliefs.

One reason we cannot fathom the Iranian leadership is that it’s a theocracy, rather similar to Likud-dominated theocratic Israel today.  

Armstrong shows how shallow reliance on the religion— violence equation dominates in our materialistic 21st century, and leads us to significant thinking errors.

The worst wars all-time began 101 years ago in a Europe experiencing the bewildering assault of modernity and the parallel crumbling of orthodox Christianity. Let’s say that over 100 million humans perished in World Wars I and II, and the mass killings continued in Mao’s China with more mass incarceration in Stalin’s gulag after 1945.

None of this came about because of religion (contra Pinker, 2006).

When scientific materialism shattered the monolith of singular belief  — and Nietzsche had correctly predicted “God is dead!” 135 years ago — then a multitude of smaller belief systems replace it, swarming in like locusts on a leveled field of particularistic believers.

Some of these splintered off-shoot belief systems are harmless like theosophy, the Boy Scouts, organized sports’ spectacles and video games.

But others move into the twisted and even the insane: specifically witness the pseudo-Islam, or Islamism, spouted by the Paris terrorists.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud was killed by Paris police on Nov. 19, and we’ve learned he was a school dropout in Belgium, a former drug dealer, and he did not really know the Qur’an, his supposed “Bible.”

Israeli historian Y. Harari and others show that while technology and society are changing at an ever-faster rate, our hard-wired evolved bodies and DNA cannot adapt at that unprecedented change rate.

Human beings still require updated ‘myths’ and associated belief systems in order to survive “the system,” and in order to raise families and believe in the future. 

While most humans on the planet today still hold religious beliefs, the percentage of believers has declined steeply in Europe and parts of the USA. American beliefs have disintegrated and spread through many sects, and these private associations still flourish in 2015, and most are harmless.

Other interesting new cults include veneration of sports spectacles on TV, online video gaming and gambling, online pornography, and hundreds of other screen-based 21st century rituals. 

Almost all humans have a deep-seated need to believe; otherwise, without these cultural stories, folklore, and legends, how can we dare face the future at all? 

In his influential book Sapiens, Harari makes clear that before the western Enlightenment (1700s) there was no way to distinguish the religio-spiritual from the general cultural matrix of an individual’s social life.

Religion could not be separated from one’s daily, minute-to-minute life; and today’s Sunday church service and Friday shabbos are nothing like the ancient cultural life where “religion” permeated everything and was inseparable from living. 

The problem is that we began thinking that Religion was a separate reality, following John Locke via Thomas Jefferson.  

As the major monotheism dissolves in the West, we get a host of interesting new cults and belief systems disguised as scientific or psychological or cloud metaphysics.

Now that we are in the Age of the Anthropocene,  we can agree with Harari that hyper-belief in capitalism is just another cult: “Capitalism began as an economic theory [and] assumed faith in the future” via Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – faith in a doctrine of continual material growth. 

This Western “hand” decreed that in the year 1900 about 9/10ths of the world’s Moslems lived under European rulers, and they were kept in poverty. Today, many Americans “worship” at the fundamentalist altar of free-market capitalism without realizing they are involved in an uncritical act of religious adoration.

Harari doesn’t let the infamous 1930s European cult of Nazism, or new-edition evangelical Christianity, off the hook either:  “Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.”      

Many Americans still swallow the simplistic "myth of religious violence" embedded in the nasty Islamophobia they keep hearing in shrill shrieks from the Right.

Blaming “Religion” and Islam for all the scary recent terror provides a simple answer to a terribly complex set of questions.

To understand is not to forgive, of course — yet imperialism and colonialism, poverty, racism, and hopelessness are heavy background causes for anti-Western terrorism. To understand this, does not mean forgiving the perpetrators or failure to combat their efforts.

Most violence in the past 100 years has been based on materialism, imperialistic wars between empires, twisted belief in Social Darwinism (Hitler) or Soviet Communism’s dictatorship of the proletariat (Stalin).

Adam Smith’s capitalist dogma demanding worship at the shrine of “growth,” with a divinely invisible hand hovering overhead, is one of these splintered little beliefs Whitehead discussed in 1925.

The Paris terrorists are criminals and part of an enormous gang, not bloody bearers of an “Islam” that doesn’t exist. ISIS murders far more Moslems than it does Westerners.

We remain imprisoned between Dachau and the mushroom cloud, between 9/11 and Paris 2015, because we have not reconciled the human capacity for evil with the transcendent potential within each human being.

A familiar refrain in California is to shrug one’s shoulders and guiltily mutter, “What goes around, comes around.”

The new secular ethos coming out of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution adapted too easily to the materialistic and competitive tragedies of the 20th century. We should ask, with Karen Armstrong, where was “the universalist outlook promoted by some religious traditions that had helped people cultivate a reverence for the sanctity of all human beings?”

The acceptance of the simplistic myth of religious violence spares us the harrowing task of figuring out how to avoid more terror attacks like Lebanon and Paris and Mali, more genocides, and the prominent potential for nuclear suicide. 

Only then can a united homo species begin to reverse our destruction of the planet itself.

—Dan McCaslin has taught world religions at Crane School since 2001, and history since 1980.

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