Robert Fisk ends his essay on terrorism justified by religion,
“Religious Terror” (ZNet Magazine, 18 September 2005) with a conclusion that we in the largely Christian West should “Just look at ourselves in the mirror and we will see the most frightening text of all,” a “text” we had best acknowledge and write anew before attempting to correct perceived flaws in Islamic societies.
Consider that text.
Violence and religion often share a common root, fear. In this they are irrational responses.
This fear is the existential fear people experience out of their ignorance. The best capability we have to counter such fear is our rationality, but this is widely opposed by those who draw their power and prestige as managers and aristocrats in religious hierarchies.
A rational response to fear — the sense of personal helplessness — can result in planned actions, perhaps accompanied by anxiety, stress or “rational fear” given undeniably difficult circumstances or physical danger; but one has a sense of direction, and this is personal power.
Rationality will often undermine religions belief, and this is a good thing when the rationality leads away from superstition, bigotry, cruelty and ignorance. Examples of rationality lifting humanity above religiously-induced backwardness would have to include the absence of witch-burning, the advance in human thought sparked by the recognition of biological evolution, birth-control technology, condom use for AIDS prevention, and advances in women’s health-care and more equitable participation in economic activity. Most of these advances still find opposition by religious leaders of Christianity and Islam.
Of course, it is still possible to engage in violence as a rational person. But this is understood to be pure criminality, even if protected from legal consequences under the cover of government action, or inaction. War is easily seen to be a rational criminal activity, in most cases. So also many murders and mayhem committed in the course of individual criminal activity.
It is the combination of rationality — to combat irrational fear — and morality — to restrain the appeal of violence as an expedient — that works to shape personal and social behavior to greater harmony.
Religious belief in and of itself has no social value. It may have a particular personal value, but note that it is the morality of the individual and not his/her religiousness that has social impact. This is “the separation of church and state” at a personal level; you can believe what you want, it is how you act that touches us all. There is no logical connection between religion and morality, though many influenced by religious marketing imagine this to be so. Certainly, some individuals will find moral behavior to be a choice inspired by their religious belief. Others can make the opposite choice from the same emotion.
When religious commentators speak about moving beyond the ancient texts as regards their approval of war, genocide, conversion-by-the-sword, bigotry, misogyny and paternalism, they are applying both evolution — the fact that human beings can evolve as to how they think and act — and rationality — the realization that the consequences of our behaviors are linked, and and we gain individually as we gain socially in modifying them with an increase of compassionate attributes.
People who wish to maintain long-established religions within a modern humane social pattern will seek to “reform,” “reinterpret” and “moderate” ancient religious practice and conceptions. They are trying to “evolve” their irrational tradition by introducing a rationality and morality that post-dates the codification of their tradition. “Fundamentalist” oppose this. This opposition is based on the sense of threat caused by the confrontation of the rational to the irrational they hold dear, as well as by the sense of threat to their own social standing, which they detect as a modernistic skepticism of their self-justifications.
Albert Camus wrote about the clash of the rational and irrational in his book “The Rebel” (L’Homme Révolté). Heraclitus said “bigotry is the disease of the religious,” and Mark Twain described how in his youth white preachers extolled black slavery in the American South from their pulpits. One can see how comforting to the maintenance of bigotry a religious justification can be.
Religion does not automatically make people moral. Neither does rationality, but it is more likely have that effect in social evolution.
The American government under the G. W. Bush Administration is an example of a thoroughly immoral entity of excessive religiosity. Objectively, one sees blatant dishonesty, criminality, the theft of public resources abetted by cronyism and influence peddling, and a bald appeal to white-power bigotry and greed in all aspect of government operations. In short, capitalism as the piracy by selected elites operates at the expense of a nation, and is justified to the public with appeals to the irrational: be afraid, sink into bigotry, sink into greed and fear of material loss, sink into religion, but above all don’t think and especially don’t socialize your thinking — or opposition. The appeal to religion by this administration is simply one aspect of its diversionary propaganda. Genuflect to the ‘Elmer Gantry Of The Rose Garden,’ the ‘Koresh Of Crawford’ makes good.
One can easily sympathize with the anti-clericalism of earlier revolutions, for example the French in 1789 and during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), because the oppressed masses were liberating themselves from institutions that had contributed to their exploitation. However, today’s humane rationality and morality would urge us to keep things from coming to this point (a call Oscar Romero died for), and to attack the underlying basis of irrationality in the religions, which contributes to oppression, rather than attacking the overlaying religious organizations and the religious people.
A religiously-oriented critic could see this as a paradoxical attempt to “separate church and state” during a persecution of religion, but the intent is for a removal of anti-religious bias from appropriate social pressure on religiously-organized communities to conform their behaviors to widely-equitable norms guided by rationality and morality. Yes, it is proper to withhold government grants from religious institutions that practice racial discrimination. Yes, it is proper to prevent the involuntary physical mutilation of women though justified by religious arguments, and it is proper to apprehend perpetrators of such acts, to be tried under applicable secular laws. Yes, it is proper to prevent financial swindles operating under the cover of religious activities. And, yes, it is proper to decertify teachers, schools and school boards that propound religious dogma and pseudo-scientific falsehoods in place of verifiable knowledge — this is a crime against the education of children. You are free in your emotional response to facts, but not in the undermining of their transmission.
No person can live an entirely rational life, irrationality and our emotions are an integral, exciting, pleasurable and very interesting part of our complete selves. Obviously, no secular entity, nor any other individual has any right to dictate your choices and preferences for your irrational life.
People whose pattern of irrationality is similar will delight in congregating. Where such community is a source of comfort and social joy to its participants, it must be counted a good for society generally. However, where such a community seeks to take over the thought patterns of the larger society, and especially with backward-oriented practices and cruelties, then such a thrust must be seen as a potential mental health epidemic, a virus against the social psyche. This is what America is experiencing as the “Religious Right” or “Christian Fundamentalist” movement. This is nothing more than white-power bigotry calling upon a God (usually a blue-eyed Jesus) to justify itself.
The 18th century American deists who produced the Declaration Of Independence and the Constitution Of The United States, and the representatives of the original American states who devised the Bill Of Rights, were quite clear that the collective entity known as the government could never be allowed to establish a religion or a preference for religion. Each individual is the sole determiner of his/her irrational life — we are free in our choice of our personal madness — our obligations to each other are through our acts, our behavior mediated by laws, which are in turn based on rational thought and moral socially-evolved — not supernaturally ascribed — principles.
So yes, religion is a mental disease when it curtails human potential.
In writing this article, I have borrowed freely from myself in God And Country
MANUEL GARCÍA, Jr., can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH
We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).
Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.
As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.
We are pleased to clarify the position.
August 17, 2005