Did religion motivate the Boston bombers?

Hillary Branyik, of Boston, kneels at the site where the first bomb detonated on April 15 near the finish line … Continued


Hillary Branyik, of Boston, kneels at the site where the first bomb detonated on April 15 near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street in Boston, on Wednesday, April 24. Traffic was allowed to flow all the way down Boylston Street on Wednesday morning for the first time since the bombing. (photo credit: AP/Michael Dwyer)

GUEST VOICES | Was it religion that drove the Tsarnaev brothers, suspecting of killing and maiming hundreds of people on a beautiful spring day in Boston? No. It was a sick form of religion that had mutated into a murderous mockery of true religion.

We can’t say that religion itself motivated the murder and maiming because there are far more religious people who do not commit terrorist outrages. Conversely, there are many non-religious people who have been guilty of genocide, terror, tyranny and torture. Religion, therefore, is not the cause.

The cause of such horrible events is not religion, but religion twisted into ideology, and by ideology I mean that particular form of human behavior which begins with self-righteous absolutism and ends in violence.

Self-righteous absolutism is the conviction of the ideologue that his beliefs and code of behavior are not only right, but everyone else’s are wrong. From this self-righteous absolutism grows the airtight belief that the world would be a better place if everyone else held the ideologue’s beliefs and observed his code of conduct. When this conviction is taken to the next stage, everyone else needs to be forced to hold those beliefs and behaviors. The next dangerous phase is when those who refuse to embrace the beliefs and behaviors are regarded as “the enemy.” The final stage of the sickness is when the ideologue decides that the enemy needs to be destroyed.

The dynamic of this sickness is clearly not limited to Muslim extremists. Virtually all religions have their fanatical fringe where the sick progression from dogmatism to some form of violence takes place. Furthermore, history shows that it is just as possible for followers of a philosophical, economic, or political belief system to begin with self-righteous absolutism and end in violence. Religious fanatics from many faiths have tortured and killed to enforce their beliefs, but so have atheistic dictators and devotees of quasi-religious nationalistic regimes like Nazism. The problem therefore, is not religion, but any form of self-righteous absolutism.

It would seem that the religious self-righteous absolutist would have the edge on the political or economic ideologue because he professes to have God on his side. However, one only needs to consider the genocidal impulses of atheistic tyrants to remember that having divine approval for one’s ideology does not necessarily ensure a higher body count.

The common sense solution to the problem might seem to be the sort of kindly, secular tolerance one sees exhibited in the “Coexist” bumper stickers. “Can’t we all just get along?” That’s certainly okay as far as it goes, but it is hardly a robust enough response in the face of fanaticism and terror. The reason tolerance on its own is not sufficient is that it is a bland and passive response.

In addition to tolerance, a positive and proactive course needs to be taken. A false and twisted religion is not countered by mere tolerance. It is countered by a true, positive and life giving religion, and the more people who take responsibility to find and practice a true, positive and life giving religion, the more the world will be freed from the twisted and deformed ideologies that maim and murder innocent people on a spring afternoon.


Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, SC. Browse his books, visit his blog and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com

  • ashleybone

    Mr. Longenecker, have you been trained in some kind of anti-logic? If not, you might consider starting a course, because you appear to be an expert. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more blatantly obvious non sequitur as this:

    “We can’t say that religion itself motivated the murder and maiming because there are far more religious people who do not commit terrorist outrages. Conversely, there are many non-religious people who have been guilty of genocide, terror, tyranny and torture. Religion, therefore, is not the cause.”

    The fact that there are religious people who are not terrorists does not establish that terrorists cannot be motivated by religion. Just consider the opposite claim: “We can’t say that religion motivates compassion and giving because there are far more religious people who are terrorists.” That is obviously not true for exactly the same reason your claim is obviously not true. Clearly there are deeply religious people who are also terrorists and who specifically sight their religious belief as motivating their actions.

    Your second claim that because there are non-religious people who do evil things, religion is never a motivation for evil, is obviously false for the same reasons.

    People are motivated to do evil things for all sorts of reasons, just as they are motivated to do good things for all sorts of reasons. In both cases, good and evil, religion is sometimes that motivation. We cannot combat religiously motivated evil if we refuse to admit its possibility.

  • Felinis

    No religion based upon the supernatural is “True Religion”.

    As long as a faith is based upon a god or dead person, the “true believer” can define the faith as he or she chooses. After all, the god, spirit, angel or devil is imaginary and the dead messiah is equally un-responsive.

    It is all too simple to claim that the saint or deity is on your side.

  • Publius38

    “True religion” is an oxymoron.

  • ThomasBaum

    The question: “Did religion motivate the Boston bombers?”

    The answer: “Yes”

  • Rationalist1

    It’s sad to see what passes for logic in today’s Catholic Church. Obviously these bombers were motivated by religion. And to say it wasn’t a true religion is a classic No True Scotsman fallacy.

  • leibowde84

    I would have to agree that “true” religion is impossible. The reason for all of these problems is this unfounded confidence that many people have that their religion is the only one that works. We have to realize that fact and relgion don’t go together, and, as a result, all religions, no matter how absurd, should be recognized. However, those that act violently in the name of their faith should be treated as the intollerant, naive idiots that they are.

  • Secular1

    This level of logic is to be published in Washington Post is a disgrace to Washington Post. It really does hurt its brand. For instance our illustrious author states, “I mean that particular form of human behavior which begins with self-righteous absolutism and ends in violence.” What in the world of nuanced distinction is he making between the so called human behavior of “self-righteous absolutism” from the organizing principles of these wretched Abrahamic religions. These religions are replete with self-righteous absolutism, starting from the prescriptions and proscriptions of human diet, to whom to befriend, when to befriend whom. How to treat a neighbor, to what extent to mistreat a stranger – selling meat of a naturally dead animal, etc, etc, etc. In comparison which secular ideologies is he talking about that openly advocate self-righteous absolutism? There may perhaps been such ideologies in yester centuries, that advocated but not today. At least I cannot think of any. One may at most cite nationalistic jingoism, which is generally based on bigotry and racism. There is absloutely no moral equivalency to be made here.

    Lastly, while all religion is stupid and laden with superstition, all religions are not the same. Far be it for me to say that Jainism is not superstitious at all. But that said, it would be well nigh impossible for a pious Jain to be radicalized and go on a killing rampage, of any kind. (S)he will simply not find any scripture to point as motivating such action. On the other hand an adherent of Abrahamic religion will easily, without any effort at all, to find amongst the organizing principal to discriminate, defile and relegate the “other” to a sub-human stature. These manifest themselves into sectarian laws, slavery, etc, etc and genocide.

  • David Fong

    Let us face reality. The Koran with its Sharia Laws authorizes punishments of maiming, death etc. to violators.They have a world views that all should be subject to the Koran . Iran is espousing this even now.
    I f the Muslim sects are persecuting each other even to death , how much more toward the unbelievers.
    If you are blind you can say Muslims are not the major persecution of other beliefs.

  • zengardener0

    I agree with the observations of the author.
    It is not exclusively religion that leads people to do horrible things. A philosophy that disregards the facts and blindly adheres to a set of preconceived notions about the world and how it should behave is dangerous. Such institutions have resulted in countless deaths.

    Religions fit the description.

    “Self-righteous absolutism is the conviction of the ideologue that his beliefs and code of behavior are not only right, but everyone else’s are wrong.”

    That is religion. The only difference between the so called, “true” religions and the demonstratively deadly religions is the absence or presence of the mandate for violence.

    Unfortunately, almost ALL religions have a mandate for violence somewhere in their holy texts. It just takes a certain kind of person to act on it.

    The author has no grounds to say that one religion or a particular version of a religion is the True form and the others are perversions.

    You are either Cherry-Picking or making a claim about what it means to be a True-Scotsman.

  • 3vandrum

    I agree with the author, “a true postive life giving religion” will not motivate these bombers. Such a religion does not exist now ( execept some buddhists and jains) and history has proved that. It is time to get rid of all these religions. Compassion can exist even without religious belief, you don’t need a religion to teach you that.

  • Secular1

    Garak, your comparison Islam and X’tianity and judaism is bunch of balderdash. While your claims are historically accurate, over the decades and centuries bothe of them have been tamed by secularism and defanged. While islam seems to be running wild. The so called moderates always make commotion in the west against any sort of hint of discrimination, they are deafeningly silent about such institutionalized discrimination an bigotry in their old countries. Take for instance just take a count of how many mosques are there in just New York city and compare it with number of Hindhu temples in all of middle east. There is just one and that to in a 2nd floor apartment, becuase the so called authorities in Dubai wanted to ensure that none of the muslim sentiments were injured by the fact that a polytheistic place of worship is directly on the sacred muslim soil. The fact that you and I are able to freely opine here is teh testament to teh fact that once x’tian dominated west is essentially has pushed religion out of public. Of course there is more to be done, but lets not loose the perspective.

  • Abey

    The author maintains that it is not the Muslim religion that advocates terrorism but “Self-righteous absolutism , which is the conviction of the ideologue that his beliefs and code of behavior are not only right, but everyone else’s are wrong.”
    But that is the best description of Muslim jurisprudence I have ever heard.

  • ThomasBaum

    Garak

    Some may or may not have the same thought pattern as you but not all, it’s no wonder you don’t believe in the small god that you “conceive” god to be.

  • ThomasBaum

    3vandrum

    You wrote, “It is time to get rid of all these religions.”

    That has been tried and it seems that it did not bring out the compassion in everyone that you seem to think getting “rid of all these religions” would do.

  • ThomasBaum

    Seems to me that “peace”, according to the koran, is when everyone is a Muslim and the whole world is under islamic law.

    islam is about world domination by any means which includes but is not limited too, terrorism, the ballot box, deception.

  • Kingofkings1

    As I read this interesting article, I said to myself: “This guy has really thought throuh this thing and must be a phiosophy professor. He gave away the facade with the last paragraph: “A false and twisted religion is not countered by mere tolerance. It is countered by a true, positive and life giving religion, and the more people who take responsibility to find and practice a true, positive and life giving religion, the more the world will be freed from the twisted and deformed ideologies that maim and murder innocent people on a spring afternoon.”

    And what exactly, sir, is ” the true, positive, and life giving religion”? IEvery extremist from every religion and ideology claims that for his own group.

    Fail.Try again. Hint: Drop the last paragraph.

  • Kingofkings1

    Buddhist monks have been inciting mass killings in Myanmar a few weeks ago.
    Jains have been responsible for the worst massacres a decade ago post India’s independence , and the mastermind of those massacres is now their governor.

  • 3vandrum

    @kingofkings1,
    You are misleding everyone. The Gujarath incident is nothing to do with jains. When muslims burnt a train full of hindus going to Ayodhya there was retalation by hindus and some muslims were killed. Islam cannot claim a positive life giving religion. Islam was spread with swords

  • Catken1

    That’s true of all absolutist religions, though.

  • Rongoklunk

    Hitler was a catholic, and the Holocaust slaughter of millions of Jews is in line with Catholic Church’s earlier crusades against Jews, heretics and Islam. It went on for hundreds of years.

    I don’t see the point these days of continuing to tell our children that there’s a God up there in the sky etcetra. He isn’t. He’s only too obviously make-believe, like all the other gods. I raised five atheists by not mentioning god, or heaven, or life after death. I never lied to them. Telling them that there was a God would be a lie. We know of no such thing. Anyway, they’re all adults now, married with children of their own, and raising them as they were themselves raised – god free. I urge everyone to do this. It was so easy. Even when my daughter had cancer – as a baby- it never occurred to me to pray. Didn’t even cross my mind. She was ill for two years and almost died. I did everything I could. And I’m glad I didn’t even think about the great skyfairy. If I had, I might have prayed. Why not. It would just take a minute or two. Though maybe if it crossed my mind I’m too much of an unbeliever to even try it. I just KNOW there’s nobody up there. I look back and know I did the right thing. My kids sure appreciated it.

  • ThomasBaum

    ab·so·lut·ism

    1.
    the principle or the exercise of complete and unrestricted power in government.

    Contrary to what some “Christians” have done and/or attempted to do over the years, the Person, Jesus, Whom Christianity is based on, said, “My Kingdom is not of this world” and “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” and “Proclaim the Good News”, among other things that He said.

    Which religions do you consider “absolutist religions”?

    Jesus did ask for the Good News to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, however, there is a difference, big difference, between proclaiming and absolutism.

    Absolutism is surely not restricted to religion, fairly recent history is proof of that.

  • ThomasBaum

    You wrote, “Telling them that there was a God would be a lie.”

    You don’t know if that would have been a lie but if you had told them that you believed that there was/is a God than that would have been a lie.

Read More Articles

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

concert
Why I Want to Be Culturally Evangelical

I’ve lost my faith. Do I have to lose my heritage, too?

shutterstock_37148347
What Is a Saint?

How the diversity of saintly lives reveals multiple paths toward God.

987_00
An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.