Eye of the Beholder: Religion, Liberty, and Violence

754px-Battle_of_Nandorfehervar.jpg
(Battle of Nandohrfhervar/Wikipedia)

By David Wheeler-Reed

After the recent terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in Paris, France, by men who claimed to be al-Qaeda militants, it didn’t take long for Twitter and the blogosphere to reignite the old debate about whether religion leads inexorably to violence. This debate calls to mind Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek's take on what he calls the “pseudo-revolutionary critics of religion,” who attempt to denounce the tyranny of religion while creating their own kind of totalitarianism. “In fighting religion,” he says, "they are compelled to forsake freedom itself, thus sacrificing precisely that which they wanted to defend.” In other words, people often become the monster they wish to destroy.

As someone who spent a decade in graduate school studying religion, I would be the first to admit that it has what Carl Jung terms a dark, shadowy side. Christianity had the Crusades; the pograms against Jews; the Inquisition; and, in our own country, the theocracy of Puritanism. Islam has political Islam, a perversion of the teachings of the Quran, which inspires in some of its followers the kind of atrocious acts carried out most recently in Paris, France or every day in countries in its thrall. Judaism has its radical adherents who will murder co-religionists or assassinate an Israeli prime minister to bend other Israelis to their philosophy. Hindu nationalists in India have slaughtered Muslims, most infamously, perhaps, in Gujarat, and the leader of the nationalist party, who was chief minister of the Gujarat state at the time of the riots, has been elected president of India. Buddhist monks have been in the forefront of attacks against Muslims in Burma. The shadow side of even the most "peaceful" religions is not hard to find.

But maintaining that religion is the major cause of violence in the world is a false claim. Noam Chomsky points out that some of the "new atheists" (e.g., Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris) have created what he calls a kind of “state religion” that is much more dangerous than the major religions in the world today. This new religion is more dangerous because it often fails to critique the political policies of Western governments and unregulated capitalism. One of the "new" atheism's major proponents, Christopher Hitchens, for example, gave ideological cover to the Iraq War, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings. Going further back, the fire bombing of Dresden, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Gulag of the Cold War were not propagated by religious fanatics but by scientists and intellectuals using what they thought were rational, utilitarian arguments.

There seems to be a growing consensus that fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, is the real problem. Those who take their beliefs—and perhaps themselves—too seriously are often the cause of violent atrocities in the world. Think, for instance, of the destruction caused by those who never question American Exceptionalism and assume that their perverted form of Social Darwinism gives the United States the right to spread "democracy and freedom" throughout the world. In fact, American Exceptionalism can be a religious ideology, a secular ideology, or both simultaneously, depending on who is invoking it.

When I reflect on Charlie Hebdo and its cartoons, many of which would never be printed in the United States because of the self-censorship and pressure from powerful interest groups, I think of Michel Foucault's statement that "somebody who writes has not got the right to demand to be understood as he had wished to be when he was writing; that is to say from the moment when he writes he is no longer the owner of what he says, except in a legal sense." In other words, cartoonists, filmmakers, visual artists, dancers, and writers have no control over how their work is interpreted. But the people who interpret them are responsible for their own actions, for how they interpret the world around them. Personally, I think we are stuck in a debate that is asking the wrong questions.

How can religious socialists shift the sterile debate?  We need to ask hard questions while still remaining true to democratic principles. These would include: (1) How do we allow different groups to voice their opinions while being critical of opinions that ultimately lead to violence and destruction? (2) How do we educate people about different religions and be fair in our assessments? (3) How do we address the plurality of religions in the world today? and (4) How do we convince people to take personal responsibility for their reactions to things they may not like? I don’t pretend to have answers to any of these questions, but I do think that without asking them, we run the risk of becoming the monster we wish to destroy.

Suggested Readings

William T. Cavanaugh. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of

            Modern Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Terry Eagleton. Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The Terry

            Lectures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

RS Editors. “The Freedom to Offend: Religious Socialists and Cartoons” RS 30 (2006): 1, 4-5.

           

David Wheeler-Reed, Ph.D. (Toronto) is a visiting fellow at Yale University and Yale Divinity School. He is working on his first book, Sex in the Empire: Strategies of Power from Augustus to the Early Monastics, and is a member of the editorial collective of DSA's Religion and Socialism blog, launching in February.


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