Foreign Policy Nov-Dec '09
Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion, including A History of God, Islam: A Short History, and, most recently, The Case for God.
No. When Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God in 1882, he thought that in the modern, scientific world people would soon be unable to countenance the idea of religious faith. By the time The Economist did its famous “God Is Dead” cover in 1999, the question seemed moot, notwithstanding the rise of politicized religiosity -- fundamentalism -- in almost every major faith since the 1970s. An obscure ayatollah toppled the shah of Iran, religious Zionism surfaced in Israel, and in the United States, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority announced its dedicated opposition to “secular humanism.”
But it is only since Sept. 11, 2001, that God has proven to be alive and well beyond all question -- at least as far as the global public debate is concerned. With jihadists attacking America, an increasingly radicalized Middle East, and a born-again Christian in the White House for eight years, you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who disagrees. Even The Economist’s editor in chief recently co-authored a book called God Is Back. While many still question the relevance of God in our private lives, there’s a different debate on the global stage today: Is God a force for good in the world?
So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.
These writers are wrong -- not only about religion, but also about politics -- because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.
"God Breeds Violence and Intolerance.
No, humans do. For Hitchens in God Is Not Great, religion is inherently “violent … intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism and bigotry”; even so-called moderates are guilty by association. Yet it is not God or religion but violence itself -- inherent in human nature -- that breeds violence. As a species, we survived by killing and eating other animals; we also murder our own kind. So pervasive is this violence that it leaks into most scriptures, though these aggressive passages have always been balanced and held in check by other texts that promote a compassionate ethic based on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like them to treat you. Despite manifest failings over the centuries, this has remained the orthodox position.
In claiming that God is the source of all human cruelty, Hitchens and Dawkins ignore some of the darker facets of modern secular society, which has been spectacularly violent because our technology has enabled us to kill people on an unprecedented scale. Not surprisingly, religion has absorbed this belligerence, as became hideously clear with the September 11 atrocities.
But "religious" wars, no matter how modern the tools, always begin as political ones. This happened in Europe during the 17th century, and it has happened today in the Middle East, where the Palestinian national movement has evolved from a leftist-secular to an increasingly Islamically articulated nationalism. Even the actions of so-called jihadists have been inspired by politics, not God. In a study of suicide attacks between 1980 and 2004, American scholar Robert Pape concluded that 95 percent were motivated by a clear strategic objective: to force modern democracies to withdraw from territory the assailants regard as their national homeland.
This aggression does not represent the faith of the majority, however. In recent Gallup polling conducted in 35 Muslim countries, only 7 percent of those questioned thought that the September 11 attacks were justified. Their reasons were entirely political.
Fundamentalism is not conservative. Rather, it is highly innovative -- even heretical -- because it always develops in response to a perceived crisis. In their anxiety, some fundamentalists distort the tradition they are trying to defend. The Pakistani ideologue Abu Ala Maududi (1903-1979) was the first major Muslim thinker to make jihad, signifying “holy war” instead of the traditional meaning of “struggle” or “striving” for self-betterment, a central Islamic duty. Both he and the influential Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) were fully aware that this was extremely controversial but believed it was justified by Western imperialism and the secularizing policies of rulers such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
All fundamentalism -- whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim -- is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. Qutb developed his ideology in the concentration camps where Nasser interred thousands of the Muslim Brothers. History shows that when these groups are attacked, militarily or verbally, they almost invariably become more extreme.
"God Is Incompatible with Democracy."
No. Samuel Huntington foresaw a "clash of civilizations” between the free world and Islam, which, he maintained, was inherently averse to democracy. But at the beginning of the 20th century, nearly all leading Muslim intellectuals were in love with the West and wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France. What has alienated many Muslims from the democratic ideal is not their religion but Western governments’ support of autocratic rulers, such as the Iranian shahs, Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak, who have denied people basic human and democratic rights.
The 2007 Gallup poll shows that support for democratic freedoms and women's rights is widespread in the Muslim world, and many governments are responding -- albeit haltingly -- to pressures for more political participation. There is, however, resistance to a wholesale adoption of the Western secular model. Many want to see God reflected more clearly in public life, just as a 2006 Gallup poll revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe that God should be the source of legislation.
Nor is sharia law the rigid system that many Westerners deplore. Muslim reformers, such as Sheikh Ali Gomaa and Tariq Ramadan, argue that it must be reviewed in the light of changing social circumstances. A fatwa is not universally binding like a papal edict; rather, it simply expresses the opinion of the mufti who issues it. Muslims can choose which fatwas they adopt and thus participate in a flexible free market of religious thought, just as Americans can choose which church they attend.
Religion may not be the cause of the world’s political problems, but we still need to understand it if we are to solve them. "Whoever took religion seriously!” exclaimed an exasperated U.S. government official after the Iranian Revolution. Had policymakers bothered to research contemporary Shiism, the United States could have avoided serious blunders during that crisis. Religion should be studied with the same academic impartiality and accuracy as the economy, politics, and social customs of a region, so that we learn how religion interacts with political tension, what is counterproductive, and how to avoid giving unnecessary offense.
And study it we'd better, for God is back. And if "he" is perceived in an idolatrous, literal-minded way, we can only expect more dogmatism, rigidity, and religiously articulated violence in the decades ahead.
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