Is Religion the Problem?

A Little Believing-Thinking about Religiously Motivated Terrorism

For my generation, its wisdom is axiomatic –

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only Sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
John Lennon

Metrojet Flight 9268 from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, Egypt, en route to Pulkovo Airport, Saint Petersburg, Russia on October 31 (224 dead), Beirut on November 12 (43 dead and 239 wounded), Paris on November 13 (129 dead and 352 injured), and Mali on November 20 (22 dead) are just the most widely reported episodes of religiously motivated terrorism from the past few weeks. There were others, lots and lots of others, and if we would take the time and make the effort to go back through human history the shameful connection between religion and violence would quickly become appallingly obvious. And so simplistically, with John Lennon we might reasonably conclude that if we could just rid ourselves of religion that peace and harmony would then immediately ensue.  More substantial versions of this argument than the lyrics of a popular 1971 Beatles song have been made. For instance, it’s a lynchpin in the argument for atheism made by Richard Dawkins in his bestselling 2006 book The God Delusion.  But there is another way of looking at the problem of religiously motivated violence.

Rather than viewing it as the product of a religion being taken seriously by it perpetrators, might religiously motivated violence be the result of a religion not being taken seriously enough by its perpetrators instead?  And so instead of wishing that religion would be moderated by its adherents – taken less seriously – maybe what we should hope for is that religious people everywhere would embrace the teachings of their respective faiths more fully?  Could religiously motivated violence be the product of a faith poorly understood and under-appreciated by it adherents rather than being viewed as what inevitably happens whenever religious people start getting serious about what they believe?

Tim Keller made the argument as persuasively as anybody has –


Excerpt from The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller

Perhaps the biggest faith-deterrent for the average person today is not so much violence and warfare but the shadow of fanaticism. Many non-believers in Christianity have friends or relatives that have become ‘born again’ and seem to have gone off the deep end. They soon begin to loudly express disapproval of various groups and sectors of our society—especially movies and television, the Democratic party, homosexuals, evolutionists, activist judges, members of other religions (all of which are branded ‘false’) and public schools. When arguing for the truth of their faith they often appear intolerant and self-righteous. This is what many people would call fanaticism.

What is the solution? Many people try to understand Christians along a spectrum from ‘nominalism’ at one end to ‘fanaticism’ on the other. A nominal Christian is someone who is Christian in name only, who does not practice it and maybe hardly believes it. At the other end of the spectrum a fanatic is someone who is thought to over-believe and over-practice Christianity. In this schematic, the best kind of Christian would be someone in the middle, someone who doesn’t go all the way with it, who believes it but is not too devoted to it.

The problem with this is the same mistake about Christianity that we saw above. It assumes that the Christian faith is basically a form of moral improvement. Full-blown Christianity, then would be Phariseeism. Pharisaical religious people know nothing of ‘salvation by grace’. They assume they are right with God because of their moral behavior and right doctrine. This leads naturally to feelings of superiority toward those who do not share their religiosity, and from there to various forms of abuse, exclusion, and oppression.

But what if (as we will explain more fully below) the essence of Christianity was salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us? This would mean that both the nominal end of the spectrum and the fanatical end of the spectrum were missing out on the core of the Christian faith. The extremists we think of as ‘fanatics’ are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but not committed enough. Belief that you are accepted by God via sheer grace makes you both confident (because you are loved) and humble (because you didn’t earn it.)

Think of Jesus himself. He was enormously bold and daring, casting the money-changers out of the temple with a whip (John 2:11ff,) calling the ruling power, Herod, a “fox” and refusing to leave his territory, though he knew he wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31-32) denouncing the religious and civic leaders for their corruption and injustice, though he knew it would cost him his life (Matt 23:27.) Yet he was gentle and embracing of people who were moral, racial, and political outlaws (John 8:1ff; Luke 7:36ff; 15:1ff; 19:1ff.) It was said of him he ‘came not be served, but to served’ (Mark 10:45) and he was so tender that ‘He will not quarrel or cry out…a bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out… (Matt. 12:19-20).

So think of people you consider of as fanatical. They are over-bearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, harsh. Why are they so? It is not because they are too fanatically committed to Christ and his gospel, but rather because they are not fanatical enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding as Christ was. Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement moral framework they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) What strikes us as overly-fanatical is actually a failure be fully-orbed in our commitment to Christ.

Extremism and fanaticism, which leads to abuse and oppression, is a constant danger within the body of believers. But the answer is not to toned down and ‘moderate’ faith, but a deeper and truer faith in Christ and his word. The Biblical prophets understood this well. In fact, the scholar Merold Westphal documented that Marx’s analysis of religion as an instrument of oppression was anticipated by the Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and others. Marx was not original in his critique of religion—the Bible beat him to it! So while the church itself has tragically and inexcusably often been party to the oppression of people over the centuries, it is important to point out how Christian theology and the Bible gives us tools for unflinching analysis and withering critique of religiously supported injustice from within the faith. We have been taught to expect it and told what to do about it. Because of this, Christian history gives us many remarkable examples of self-correction.

My own life and faith are replete with multiple “remarkable examples” of this kind of “self-correction.”  I know that my own complicity with the racism of my culture was exposed only when I started taking my commitment to Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of all people without distinction (Galatians 3:28) with utmost seriousness.  And I know that my own resistance to the notion of women in ministry was shattered only when I started reading the New Testament for myself and taking what it says about women as the “joint heirs of grace” (3:7) and full partners in the empowering and indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:16-18) seriously.  And I know that my own unsettledness with the way that the church has historically responded to gay, lesbian and transgendered people has been fomented more by my commitment to the inclusive Gospel of John 3:16 than it has been triggered by any Supreme Court ruling or conclusion drawn from the latest psychological research. It has been by me becoming more Christian and not less Christian that I have found myself becoming less dogmatic and judgmental and more consciously and deliberately gracious.  And if this is true for me as a person who is trying to take his Christianity with full seriousness, then I am inclined to think that it is equally true for people of other faith traditions as well.

malcolmIn fact, according to Alex Haley in his seminal biography of Malcolm X, it was his fuller embrace of the teachings of Islam following his pilgrimage to Mecca where the brotherhood of all Muslim believers regardless of their race was on full display that Malcolm X began to distance him from some of the positions and people that he had previously embraced.  And while his assassination by extremists from his own faith tradition prevents us from knowing where this journey of faith would have eventually led him, there are good and sufficient grounds for thinking that it was the deepening of his faith as a Muslim that was leading him to a more generous engagement in the struggle for civil rights and racial justice and a more inclusive vision of what America could become.  And I hold out this same hope for all of us today, Muslims and Christians alike.

americaTaking our respective faiths more seriously and not less seriously is what I believe will best serve the cause of peace in our time.  And just as we who are serious Christians uniformly regard the recent provocative armed protests at the Irving Mosque as spiritually antithetical to genuine New Testament Christianity, so we must accord this same distinction to our Muslim neighbors and friends when it comes to the actions of ISIS extremists and Al Qaeda terrorists.

It is not Islam that makes someone a terrorist any more than it is Christianity that convinces somebody to strap an automatic weapon to his or her back and drive over to Irving to hurl insults at Muslims gathering for prayer.  And just as I would challenge the actions of those who spew their hatred on the sidewalks in front of the Irving Mosque by an appeal to Scripture and the logic of the gospel, so I believe that the way for violent Muslim extremism to be confronted is by a deeper engagement with their own Scriptures and by a fuller obedience to their teachings.  The solution is not by all of us abandoning our respective faith traditions as John Lennon proposed in his song, but by all of us taking our respective faith traditions even more seriously than we ever have before.  As the popular radio commentator Dennis Prager likes to say, when Christians are truly Christians things are going to be so much better, and safer, for him as an Orthodox Jew.  And I believe that the same thing is true for all of us when it comes to Islam.

When Christians are truly Christians, and Jews are truly Jews, and Muslims are truly Muslims, things are going to be better, and safer, for all of us – Christians, Jews, Muslims and unbelievers alike. I don’t think that we need less religion.  I think we need religious people to get even more serious about what their religions teach.  That’s the only way that I can “imagine all the people living life in peace.”   DBS+                                         




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