Simple explanations can be comforting, and when atrocities like this week’s tragedies in Paris occur, many people take comfort in the simplistic idea of “religious violence.” Modern Islam in particular is useful in this regard, and also unifying — everyone from the Fox & Friends hosts to Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher can satisfy their questions about the Charlie Hebdo massacre by pointing to only one factor: Islam. Do away with the religion, and the world would be a safer, more peaceful place.
The problem is that such a highly tweetable, soundbite-able claim explains almost nothing. The argument that religious faith, pure and simple, is what motivates the kind of extremist behavior we’re seeing — from Charlie Hebdo to journalist beheadings to the slaughter of Pakistani schoolchildren — is limiting our capacity to examine one of the world’s most intractable difficulties.
“Religion” is a pretty complicated idea for public discourse, because it’s not a very well defined concept. It’s too big. Blaming “religion” for violence is like blaming “water” for thunderstorms. It’s not that there’s no relationship between the two; it’s just that you aren’t getting any closer to understanding the situation.
Our vague understanding of religion is a basic feature of the modern world. As William Cavanaugh has written, over the last few centuries we’ve grown accustomed to this idea that there is something called “religion” that is somehow distinct from “secular” aspects of the world. Religion is that which is irrational and absolutist, a relic of our barbaric, pre-secular past.
The world might be neatly arranged if that were true. But of course, secular ideologies feature irrationalities and absolutisms of their own. Nationalism, communism, and capitalism have been bloody affairs. Witness the twentieth century.
Pointing the finger at “religion” is not just a weak move intellectually. It’s also not very helpful practically. How do you solve a problem like religious violence? By doing away with religion? What could that possibly even mean? Those who talk about religion as if it’s a programming error in humanity speak from positions of great and blinding (and usually white) privilege, punching downward toward people whose conditions they cannot see, or refuse to see.
There’s no doubt that killers like Said and Cherif Kouachi — as well as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, currently on trial for the terror attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon — were motivated in part by religious faith. But these young men did not start as blank slates that were filled with Islam and thus turned into killers. If that was the process by which extreme violence was birthed in the world, we’d have a far more violent world than the one we have.
How do religion finger-pointers explain all the religious peace movements? How do they explain the ways in which religious faith — including Islam and the Qu’ran — motivates countless people toward virtuous lives? How do they understand Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day? How about Mohammed Ali?
If religion is our problem, it’s a maddeningly inconsistent problem, like a cancer that sometimes makes you sick and sometimes makes you smell like strawberries.
Some religion finger-pointers are more specific, and point only to radical Islam. And to be sure, the men who committed acts of evil this week in Paris were in fact radicalized Muslims. But why? What made them so? What inspires radical Islam? What are the conditions that give rise to it? Can we repair those conditions? Or is the plan to gather up all the radical Muslims and do away with them somehow? None of these questions ever seem to be addressed in our public dialogue. Having blamed religion, or radical religion, the blamers are satisfied, and ready-set with an easy explanation for the next time terrorists attack.
Refusing to be simple-minded about terrorism and violence is not to excuse it, nor to be an apologist for extremist and dangerous doctrines. Clearly, religion — especially radical religion — can help foment incredible evil. But we need a fuller account of what is causing that evil. We need people who will help us address the political, economic, and historical factors. We need to stop pretending we can so easily understand what’s going on. We need to stop scapegoating religion.