- Fanatical Muslims kill thousands in their attack on the World Trade Center in New York because God wills them to strike fears into the heart of the infidel.
- A pious Christian murders an abortion doctor in Kansas because he was convinced that God wanted him to revenge the lives of the unborn taken by the practice of abortion.
- Devout Jews drive Muslims from their homelands on the West Bank and Gaza Strip because they believe that God has granted them the rights to their lands.
And now two brothers from Chechnya, Tamerlan and Dzhohar Tsarnev, caused mayhem and panic in Boston after exploding two bombs at the Boston Marathon. The older brother, Tamerlan, age 26, had clearly been on the road to religious fanaticism for some time. The younger, Dzhohar, age 19, appears to have been influenced by his brother’s religious views, although by all accounts he was a fairly assimilated American. Whatever their specific motivations might have been, it is clear that religion played a huge role in inspiring their rampage.
There are those who would argue that the religious beliefs that propelled these two to kill innocent human beings represent a perverse form of Islam. But in fact, the sacred book for all Muslims, The Koran, has over 100 verses calling for the faithful to go to war against infidels. And this includes the following:
"And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution [of Muslims] is worse than slaughter [of non-believers]... but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah." (Koran 2:191-193)
Of course, Christian and Jews have no grounds to be too smug. The Old Testament is filled with passages calling for genocide against non-believers and acts of violence against those who violate God’s law. And the New Testament contains passages that have been used by Christians to justify sexism, racism, and homophobia to this very day (not to mention inspiring several crusades, a fairly nasty inquisition, and centuries of slavery).
The problem with religious belief in general is that at times it can be used as a kind of crutch to cover up the fears, anxieties, and insecurities that are part and parcel of the human condition. Sickness, suffering, old age, and death are our lot in life. And no one likes to think that the misery we experience is pointless. So some people turn to religion to provide them with a soothing narrative to help put their suffering into some kind of meaningful content.
With his faith to support him, the believer doesn’t have to worry about death any longer, because, as long as he remains faithful to God’s law, he will be rewarded with an eternity of pleasure with God in heaven (rather like your Disney vacation extended forever, but without all the humid weather, endless lines, and mobs of annoying children at every turn). This leads to a kind of inner peace, but it’s an illusionary one: we can forget for a few moments at least just how wretched life is, but in the end we can never actually escape the reality of our own human contingency and finitude. As Kierkegaard noted, despair is an inevitable part of our human experience and affects the believer just as much as it does the non-believer.
The religious fanatic, however, takes his faith to another level entirely than the ordinary believer. The fanatic has the kind of crystal clear certainty about God’s will and how he should live his life that admits absolutely no questioning or doubt. In a Twitter feed, Dzhohar Tsarnev, the younger of the two Boston marathon bombers, wrote the following:
I kind of like religious debates. Just knowing what other people believe is interesting and then completely crushing their beliefs with facts is fun.
Notice that Dzhohar didn’t say that he enjoys religious debates because it helps him to become more sympathetic to views than are different from his own. He enjoys them because he gets a thrill from “crushing” his opponents. And notice also that he describes his opponents’ positions as “beliefs” (something subjective, capricious, subject to error) and his own as “facts” (objective, certain, and infallible).
The religious fanatic’s certainty leads him to view the beliefs of all those with whom he disagrees as a kind of heresy—a rejection of God’s eternal law and a violation of the moral order that He has established on earth. This makes it much easier, I suppose, to demean one’s opponents and to put them in the category of unredeemable heretic, apostate, or infidel. It also makes it easier to kill them when you need to, because your opponents become, not just those who have a different perspective on the truth, but rather those who are activity working against God’s sublime plans for mankind (the establishment of the Kingdom or of sharia law on earth, for example).
But this denigration of the non-believer alone doesn’t fully account for the propensity of some fanatics to engage in acts of violence against those with whom they disagree. I’ve met plenty of religious fanatics in my time, but none of them, at least to my knowledge, has ever caused serious physical harm to another human being. They may foam up at the mouth during an argument about religion, but they probably aren’t going to kill you because you disagree with them. There’s something more at work in the psychological make-up of the “true believer” that enables him to move from disagreeing strenuously with his opponents to wanting to see his opponents maimed or killed.
And that something more is the kind of life-denying sensibility that is an inevitable part of all religious belief, but which is magnified almost infinitely in the minds of fanatics.
Certainly I think that all religious belief contains within itself some degree of life-denial. The believer—whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim—sees his ultimate end separate from his life in this world. Earthly existence, at its best, is an imperfect reflection of that eternal life to which the believer aspires. At its worst, it becomes a “veil of tears” that we are forced to suffer through on our way to our true home with God in heaven.
By focusing on the next life, the believer inevitably is forced to downplay or ignore what’s going on in this world. The believer, for example, doesn’t have to worry about the polar ice caps melting and what this might mean for future generations, because his focus is on the next world. He need not concern himself with creating a more just and social order here, because the very injustices that he experiences will provide the justification for his rewards later.
But, though there’s a degree of life-denial in all religious belief, for the religious fanatic this life-denial takes on a pathological form. It becomes not just life-denial, but life-denigration. For the fanatic, any sense of pleasure, meaning, and satisfaction from this life that one derives diminishes the focus that ought to be placed on the next life. So the fanatic is forced to view earthly existence as something ugly, sordid, and unsavory in order to magnify the qualities of the world to come. For Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Kansas becomes something hideous to be fled from, because it makes that “somewhere over the rainbow” where she really longs to be all that much more desirable. The only difference between Dorothy and the religious fanatic is that the fanatic never has the opportunity to realize that there really is “no place like home,” whereas Dorothy is wise enough by the end of her adventures to eventually come to understand that fact.
Like all human beings, the religious fanatic has a biological drive to try to derive as much physical pleasure from life as possible. But the more he enjoys things like food, drink, sex, and even the higher pleasures of friendship and family life, the more tortured he becomes, because he views his natural desires as a kind of moral weakness. This tension probably exists in all religious fanatics. It’s interesting to note that the bombers of the World Trade Center couldn’t stop themselves from going to a strip club and drinking to excess before committing their atrocities. One can only imagine that the contempt they felt for themselves for giving into such physical pleasures must have provided fuel for the murderous acts that they later engaged in.Lest anyone think that I am attacking all forms of religious belief as bordering on life-denigration, let me assure you that this is most certainly not my position. Just as I’ve met more than a few religious fanatics during my many years working for the Catholic Church, I’ve also met many devout men and women who are as life-affirming as you can possibly be. These are people who sincerely believe that God’s kingdom is already at hand and that religious faith is meant to be lived out fully in this world. Such individuals are deeply committed to making the world a better place and see absolutely no incompatibility between their love of life and their love for God.
But I also think that, to the extent that there is any kind of life-denying message in the teachings of organized religion, we will be providing a breeding ground for those warped individuals who think it necessary to demonstrate their devotion to God by wreaking havoc on the world. In this sense, people like Tamerlan and Dzhohar Tsarnev should be viewed as victims of a perverse and unhealthy worldview that has been shaped by life-denigrating tendencies that exist in most of our major religions. It’s only when we begin to acknowledge that religious faith and life-affirmation, far from being incompatible, are actually two essential components of a healthy spiritual life that we will even begin to address the underlying causes of acts of terrorism like the one we just witnessed in Boston.