Organized religion has been, by and large, a positive force in the world. And that's the way we want it to be.
But like the 'Force' in George Lucas's "Star Wars" trilogy, there can be a dark side to the expression of religious belief that can manifest itself in violence, particularly between those who hold differing beliefs about the nature of God or the divine.
Last week conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe looked at this "dark side of the force" as he saw it manifested in recent events. Jacoby asked an important question: why are we so upset with reports that Newsweek printed a short piece about the desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo, but not at the reaction in Afghanistan that led to the deaths of at least 16 people?
It's hard for those of us in the West to understand how the alleged mistreatment of a book, even a very holy book, could possibly upser people so much as to cause the deaths of so many people.
(Then again, both Afghanistan president Harmid Karzai and General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of staff, denied the riots had been prompted by the Newsweek article, calling them instead "a political act against Afghanistan's stability." Karzai said Monday that "we know who did this" and it wasn't connected to the Koran article.)
But then Jacoby writes that this kind of reaction to a perceived slight is one reason why Muslims are so disrespected in the West - violence, it seems to Jacoby, is second nature to Muslims and to Islam, but not to other religions.
Christians, Jews, and Buddhists don't lash out in homicidal rage when their religion is insulted. They don't call for holy war and riot in the streets. It would be unthinkable for a mainstream priest, rabbi, or lama to demand that a blasphemer be slain.
The above paragraph makes an interesting point. There's only one problem with it - it's wrong.
Christians, Jews, and Buddhists don't "lash out in homocidal rage when their religion is insulted"? Would that it were so.
Unfortunately, even a cursury scan of the headlines from the past few years, or even this past week, shows how wrong it is.
Shall we talk about the religious leaders in Israel who have threatened violence and riots, and perhaps worse, to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his supporters, if he goes ahead with his disengagement plan?
These religious leaders believe they have a 'God-given right' to the Gaza (and the West Bank), and have inspired their followers with the same belief. By defending the settlements through force and threats, they are carrying out God's will.
Let's not forget that one Israeli leader has already died at the hands of a Jewish religious zealot, who believed in 1995 that there was "a religious commandment" to kill Yitzhak Rabin.
No Christian violence? Ignoring the whole decades-long situation in Northern Ireland, there are many other examples.
The Associated Press reports that "Members of the Pentecostal religious community in the former Soviet republic of Georgia have been harassed and beaten this month" by members of the the country's dominant Orthodox Christian faith. The attacks, the report noted, had been taking place for years.
The recent Terri Schiavo controversy is chock-a-block with incidents where Christian religious leaders encouraged their followers to react in a manner that was often violent. Michael Schiavo and his family, as well as the Republican judge who ruled against Terri's family, have all received numerous death threats from Christians.
Schiavo himself is still in hiding, after being "Salman Rushdie'd" by the religious right in America.
And we all know how Republican House leader Tom DeLay made a not-so-veiled threat that these judges would get what was coming to them. He later said he "regretted the remark but not the sentiment." And there have been similar provocative remarks by other Christian right leaders.
And what about Christian preachers who say, quite publicly, it's OK to kill abortion providers or the people who work for them?
And Buddism? Many in North American see Buddhism personified in the presence of the Dalai Lama. But in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, and Thailand, violence against religious minorities is a serious problem.
In Sri Lanka, thousands of people have died in clashed between the Tamil Tigers, who are Hindu, and the Buddhist government. Catholic churches have been attacked as well. And the Thai government has come under heavy criticism for its treatment of its Muslim minority.
And let us not forget Arum Shinrikyo, the Buddhist-inspired Japanese cult that carried out one of the worst acts of pre-9/11 terrorism the world had seen.
I could give you countless other examples of religious violence of the kind Jacoby ascribes to the Muslim world being committed by non-Muslim religious groups. But for me, the more important question is why is there religious violence at all.
The best answer I've seen so far was something I found at Belief.net - an interview with Charles Kimball, a religion professor at Wake Forest University who was director of the Middle East Office at the National Council of Churches from 1983-90.
Kimball says there are several factors that can lead followers of a religious tradition to violence "that contradicts what's at the very heart of their religious tradition":
* A belief that only they know what God wants.
* Blind obedience to a leader - "When people become so convinced of a particular person or charismatic leader that they blindly will follow that person."
* The end justifies the means. Kimball says this is one of the "scariest" notions of all.
The problem is when people become convinced they know the route to the peaceable kingdom and they are God's agents to make it happen. And here is where you get groups of extremist Jews whose messianic mission leads them to tunnel under the Dome of the Rock and try to blow it up in order to facilitate the building of the Third Temple. Or Christian fundamentalist groups who long for Armageddon to the point that they will support violent extremists trying to destroy the Dome of the Rock.
The behaviors outlined by Kimball are not just found in Islam. They can be demonstrated by all religious groups, as we have seen above.
And that's why, once again, I again find myself marveling at the wisdom of America's founding fathers when it came to religion. Their creation of a safeguard against this happening - by basically putting all religion on an equal footing, and saying no one religion would be the 'official' religion of America - is the reason we've largely been able to avoid this kind of religious violence.
And while it's right to decry any violence in the name of religion, as Jacoby did, it's wrong to say only one religion has a problem in that way. To do otherwise only serves to prevent us from stopping all religious violence, and keeps us from focusing on the messages of hope, justice and meaning that all religions contain at their cores
Tom Regan writes "My American Experience" a Blog at CS monitor
Related posts from similar topics: