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Saturday, November 10, 2012
Think Again: God
As causalities from the world's religious wars mount, God is getting a bad reputation. But the war against God has had its casualties as well. Here's why we need a truce -- and why secularism is almost as much of a threat to the world as fundamentalism.
BY KAREN ARMSTRONG | NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2009
"God Is Dead."
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
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some. Shiism had for centuries separated religion from politics as a matter of sacred principle. dismissed. but secularism itself has created new demons now inflicting themselves on the world. who are still deeply attached to religion and find Western institutions alien. Not necessarily. we risk amplifying its worst faults. In the West.foreignpolicy. but it was achieved gradually over the course of nearly 300 years. secularism has been a success. Such arrogance has led to atrocities like the Crusades.. "God and Politics Shouldn’t Mix. compassionate manner. or destroyed. When the shahs of Iran tortured and exiled mullahs who opposed their regime. such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. concluded that more extreme responses on the part of Iran’s future religious rulers were necessary.com/articles/2009/10/19/god_0?print=yes&h. anywhere.Think Again: God . overly aggressive secularization has sometimes backfired. secularization has occurred far too rapidly and has been resented by large sectors of the population. In the Middle East. Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905). God is here to stay. In Egypt. And when we treat religion as something to be derided. or even radical. for example. But in other parts of the world. essential to the modern economy and political system.By Karen Armstrong | Foreign Policy http://www.. making the religious establishment more conservative. allowing new ideas of governance time to filter down to all levels of society. But moderate religion can play a constructive role in politics. and Khomeini’s insistence that a cleric should become head of state was an extraordinary innovation. An inadequate understanding of God that reduces “him” to an idol in our own image who gives our likes and dislikes sacred sanction is the worst form of spiritual tyranny. Theologically illiterate politicians have long given religion a bad name. Whether we like it or not. grand mufti of Egypt. feared that the vast majority of Egyptians would not understand the country’s nascent democratic institutions unless they were explicitly linked with traditional Islamic principles that emphasized the importance of “consultation” (shura) and 2 of 7 11/10/2012 6:18 PM . The rise of secularism in government was meant to check this tendency. and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced. the remarkable reformer Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) so brutally impoverished and marginalized the clergy that its members turned their backs on change.
In a study of suicide attacks between 1980 and 2004. we also murder our own kind. no matter how modern the tools. Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949). In the same spirit. So pervasive is this violence that it leaks into most scriptures. we survived by killing and eating other animals. Yet it is not God or religion but violence itself -. this consensus is not satisfactory to American Protestant fundamentalists. For Hitchens in God Is Not Great. founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.com/articles/2009/10/19/god_0?print=yes&h. This aggression does not represent the faith of the majority. the manner in which religion is used in politics is more important than whether it’s used at all. In recent Gallup polling conducted in 35 Muslim countries. Kennedy and Barack Obama have invoked faith as a shared experience that binds the country together -. and some members of the Brotherhood splintered into radical offshoots in reaction. as became hideously clear with the September 11 atrocities. Still. presidents such as John F. In 1949. schools.. and good working conditions. this has remained the orthodox position. Of course. tribalism and bigotry”.that breeds violence. Not surprisingly. where the Palestinian national movement has evolved from a leftist-secular to an increasingly Islamically articulated nationalism. In other words.Think Again: God . humans do. began his movement by translating the social message of the Koran into a modern idiom. religion is inherently “violent … intolerant. hospitals. In claiming that God is the source of all human cruelty. the duty of seeking “consensus” (ijma) before passing legislation. not God. and it has happened today in the Middle East. and factories that gave workers insurance. trade unions. As a species. however. The Brotherhood’s resulting popularity was threatening to Egypt’s secular government. holidays. founding clinics. which has been spectacularly violent because our technology has enabled us to kill people on an unprecedented scale.inherent in human nature -. who believe the United States should be a distinctively Christian nation. Despite manifest failings over the centuries.. religion has absorbed this belligerence. he aimed to bring the masses to modernity in an Islamic setting. U.By Karen Armstrong | Foreign Policy http://www. allied to racism.foreignpolicy. Their 3 of 7 11/10/2012 6:18 PM . Banna was assassinated.S. even so-called moderates are guilty by association. No. But "religious" wars. This happened in Europe during the 17th century. only 7 percent of those questioned thought that the September 11 attacks were justified. which could not provide these services. Even the actions of so-called jihadists have been inspired by politics. 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. AFP/GETTY IMAGES "God Breeds Violence and Intolerance. Hitchens and Dawkins ignore some of the darker facets of modern secular society.an approach that recognizes the communal power of spirituality without making any pretense to divine right. always begin as political ones. 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.
Fundamentalism is not conservative.Think Again: God . The new atheists insist vehemently that religion is puerile and irrational. as Max Weber suggested in his 1905 book. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.. each developed initially in a nascent market economy. The Bible and the Koran may have prohibited usury. and Muslims all found ways of getting around this restriction and produced thriving economies. some fundamentalists distort the tradition they are trying to defend. All fundamentalism -. whose founder taught that it was impossible to serve both God and mammon. In their anxiety. militarily or verbally. Christians. was integral to modern capitalism.because it always develops in response to a perceived crisis. as Hitchens argues. The three monotheistic faiths have inveighed against the injustice of unevenly distributed wealth -. But God refuses to be outgrown. It is one of the great ironies of religious history that Christianity. History shows that when these groups are attacked. Eastern religions. Although not opposed to business. even in the United States. the richest country in the world and the most religious country in the developed world.COM "God Is for the Poor and Ignorant.” Religion is not simply a matter of subscribing to a set of obligatory beliefs.a critique that speaks directly to the gap between rich and poor in our society. it is hard work. confronted with apparently unlimited choice and prosperity.” This reflects the broader disappointment among Western intellectuals that humanity.whether Jewish. such as Buddhism. belonging.com/articles/2009/10/19/god_0?print=yes&h. None of the major religions is averse to business. Christian. try to moderate the aggressive acquisitiveness of the human psyche. we may need exactly that conquest of egotism that has always been essential in the quest for the transcendence we call “God.is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. to “the infancy of our society. the current financial crisis shows that the religious critique of excessive greed is far from irrelevant. by means of yoga and other disciplines." No. but over the centuries Jews. reasons were entirely political. 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. it is highly innovative -.. ISTOCKPHOTO. should still rely on what Karl Marx called the “opiate” of the masses. To recover from the ill effects of the last year. or Muslim -. 4 of 7 11/10/2012 6:18 PM . they almost invariably become more extreme. signifying “holy war” instead of the traditional meaning of “struggle” or “striving” for self-betterment. Still. requiring a ceaseless effort to get beyond the selfishness that prevents us from achieving a more humane humanity. a central Islamic duty. The Pakistani ideologue Abu Ala Maududi (1903-1979) was the first major Muslim thinker to make jihad.foreignpolicy.By Karen Armstrong | Foreign Policy http://www. Qutb developed his ideology in the concentration camps where Nasser interred thousands of the Muslim Brothers.even heretical -. Rather. should have produced the cultural environment that. the major faith traditions have tried to counterbalance some of the abuses of capitalism.
and alien literalism. Whenever "modernizing" governments have tried to ban the veil. Popular fundamentalism represents a widespread rebellion against modernity." He doesn’t have to be. One of the hallmarks of modernity has been the emancipation of women. But that has meant that in their rebellion against the modern ethos. theologians insisted that if a biblical text contradicted science. Before the modern period. But this is changing. and politics.Think Again: God . which was not a universal practice before the modern period. The conflict with science is symptomatic of a reductive idea of God in the modern West.com/articles/2009/10/19/god_0?print=yes&h. In general." Yes.. until the 17th century. biblical teaching. and for Christian fundamentalists. it would be better to support indigenous Muslim movements that are agitating for greater opportunities for improved women’s rights in education.By Karen Armstrong | Foreign Policy http://www. few understood the first chapter of Genesis as an exact account of the origins of life. women have rushed in ever greater numbers to put it on.. it was the empirical emphasis of modern science that encouraged many to regard God and religious language as fact rather than symbol. Unfortunately. thus forcing religion into an overly rational. In 1935. Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi commanded his soldiers to shoot hundreds of unarmed demonstrators who were peacefully protesting against obligatory Western dress in Mashhad. Ironically. Some Muslims today claim that it is not essential to look Western in order to be modern and that while Western fashion often displays wealth and privilege. dogmatic. the workplace. "God Is Bad for Women. one of Iran’s holiest shrines. any direct Western intervention in gender matters has backfired. into a symbol of Islamic integrity. it must be interpreted allegorically. within a few generations men dragged it back to the old patriarchy. fundamentalists tend to overemphasize traditional gender roles. Women in all faiths are challenging their men on the grounds of the egalitarianism that is one of the best characteristics of all these religious traditions.foreignpolicy. It is regarded less as a Science has become an enemy to fundamentalist Christians who campaign against the teaching of evolution in public schools and stem-cell research because they seem to conflict with 5 of 7 11/10/2012 6:18 PM . for example. frontal assaults on this patriarchal trend have often proven counterproductive. Such actions have turned veiling. Islamic dress emphasizes the egalitarianism of the Koran. evolution epitomizes everything that is wrong with the modern world. Even when a tradition began positively for women (as in Christianity and Islam). JOHN PHILLIPS/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES "God Is the Enemy of Science. But their reading of scripture is unprecedentedly literal. It is unfortunately true that none of the major world religions has been good for women.
what is counterproductive. The 2007 Gallup poll shows that support for democratic freedoms and women's rights is widespread in the Muslim world. Many want to see God reflected more clearly in public life. rather. and how to avoid giving unnecessary offense. he maintained.Think Again: God . an account of the not entirely orthodox way that the Bible came into being. There is. nearly all leading Muslim intellectuals were in love with the West and wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France. But this anti-science bias is far less common in Judaism and Islam. and many governments are responding -. And if "he" is perceived in an idolatrous. we can only expect more dogmatism. such as the Iranian shahs. argue that it must be reviewed in the light of changing social circumstances. The Case for God (New York: Knopf. just as a 2006 Gallup poll revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe that God should be the source of legislation. Muslims can choose which fatwas they adopt and thus participate in a flexible free market of religious thought. politics. Before her most recent book. Saddam Hussein. "Whoever took religion seriously!” exclaimed an exasperated U. "God Is Incompatible with Democracy. 2009). just as Americans can choose which church they attend. so that we learn how religion interacts with political tension. scientific theory than a symbol of evil. but we still need to understand it if we are to solve them. But at the beginning of the 20th century. resistance to a wholesale adoption of the Western secular model. than doctrinal or scientific ones. Religion should be studied with the same academic impartiality and accuracy as the economy. and religiously articulated violence in the decades ahead. Over the last few years. and social customs of a region. and the Future of 6 of 7 11/10/2012 6:18 PM . the United States could have avoided serious blunders during that crisis. for God is back. who have denied people basic human and democratic rights." No. And study it we'd better. however.com/articles/2009/10/19/god_0?print=yes&h. What has alienated many Muslims from the democratic ideal is not their religion but Western governments’ support of autocratic rulers.. the so-called New Atheists have become increasingly vocal about the dangerous shortcomings of religion in such books as Sam Harris' The End of Faith: Religion. where fundamentalist movements have been sparked more by political issues.foreignpolicy. such as Sheikh Ali Gomaa and Tariq Ramadan. government official after the Iranian Revolution. she wrote The Bible: A Biography (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.S.to pressures for more political participation. literal-minded way. and Hosni Mubarak. Samuel Huntington foresaw a "clash of civilizations” between the free world and Islam. was inherently averse to democracy. Want to Know More? Karen Armstrong has spent the past 25 years writing about the centrality of religion to the human experience. Terror. 2007). Had policymakers bothered to research contemporary Shiism. Nor is sharia law the rigid system that many Westerners deplore.albeit haltingly -. Muslim reformers. A fatwa is not universally binding like a papal edict..By Karen Armstrong | Foreign Policy http://www. Religion may not be the cause of the world’s political problems. which. such as the state of Israel. rigidity. it simply expresses the opinion of the mufti who issues it.
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