Recognizing the Power of Religion

Phillip E. Johnson

I woke up early on September 11, 2001, and booted up my computer to check the news on the Internet. I thus saw the earliest coverage of the hijacked jetliners striking the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the appalling destruction that followed. Anyone familiar with the Internet knows that hoaxes abound, and so it is wise not to repeat any sensational news until you are absolutely sure it really happened. As I paused to be sure my eyes were not deceiving me, I remember thinking, "I sure do hope that this is the mother of all Internet hoaxes." When the reality and extent of the devastation became clear, the following hours were largely spent wondering and worrying about what would come next.

The first public comment I recall hearing after the collapse of the towers was ascribed to Jerry Falwell, who was said to attribute the tragedy to God’s disgust at the wickedness of Falwell’s usual targets, particularly abortionists and homosexuals. This crudity was instantly condemned from every point on the political spectrum, including the religious right. The reaction from journalists was in many cases more "over the top" than the original remark, with various commentators suggesting that Falwell (and perhaps all Christian fundamentalists) belonged in the same category as the Islamic terrorists who had hijacked the airplanes.

Just as Falwell had seen the disaster as an opportunity to blame his usual scapegoats, the mainstream journalists seized the opportunity to blame their own preferred scapegoats—Christian fundamentalists. It probably never occurred to them that they were doing exactly the same thing that they condemned when Falwell did it. By media convention, religious "fundamentalists" (loosely defined) are what might be called designated scapegoats, who can be blamed at any time for just about anything. Homosexuals and abortion providers are in a protected category, however, and one rarely reads anything unfavorable about them in the newspapers.

From the opposite side of the Atlantic, and on the opposite side of the metaphysical spectrum from Jerry Falwell, the arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins saw an opportunity to use the disaster as a club to berate his usual enemies, religious people in general. The root cause of fanaticism, Dawkins thought, was belief in life after death, which can turn an ordinary person into a self-guided missile capable of committing some horrible act such as the suicide attack we had just witnessed on television, in the hope of earning a reward in Paradise.

Dawkins’s remark was patently absurd in a century in which a materialist philosophy called Marxist-Leninism had been responsible for about 100 million deaths. Dawkins was not publicly shamed as Falwell had been, because most prominent journalists share his prejudice, if in somewhat milder form. My own inclination was not to emphasize the absurdity of blaming Christians for Islamic extremism, but rather to focus upon the one thing that Dawkins had got right.

A man who believes in something that is more important to him than life itself is potentially a dangerous man. He may do things that a person with more mundane purposes would never think of doing. This is true of secular as well as religious faiths.

Consider, for example, the American Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale, who famously regretted that he had but one life to give for his country. Such a person might be capable of a suicide attack, given a sufficiently worthy end. (I would like to ask Dawkins if he might be capable of sacrificing his own life in an act of murderous violence if he were convinced that such an extreme measure was necessary to save science from being taken over by religious fundamentalists.) People who care for nothing beyond their own comfort are safer, although a whole lot less inspiring, than people who are capable of risking their lives. Would we therefore wish that the world were rid of all causes and purposes that are larger than life, so we could rely on people to behave more like sheep, content to graze in comfortable pastures?

No, the right conclusion to draw from the terrorist attack is not that no one should have a cause worth dying for, but rather that it is of great importance that such highly motivated persons be dedicated to a good cause rather than an evil one. That assumes that we have a standard capable of distinguishing good from evil, and this may be in doubt in an era of moral relativism, when those for whom the supreme value is "tolerance" consider it more reprehensible to name evil than to do evil. If science is our only source of knowledge, and science gives us knowledge only of fact and not of value, then distinguishing between good and evil can only be a matter of arbitrary preference. Multitudes of young people have drawn precisely that conclusion, as their education has encouraged them to do.

Dawkins caricatured religious faith as if it were another kind of technology like hypnosis, useful for manipulating people. The terrorists may have believed something similar. They believed that their faith and determination, compared with the spiritual laziness and moral degeneracy that they attributed to their enemies, were great enough to overcome the immense material and technological superiority of the nation they were attacking.

In a limited sense, the terrorists accomplished their objective. Whatever we may say about the evil of mass murder, and whatever may turn out to be its lasting effect (beyond the destruction of the Taliban govern-ment in Afghanistan), the attack was a brilliant tactical success, employing some of their enemy’s most technologically advanced equipment to achieve a spectacular destructive effect that the victims would never have imagined possible. The terrorists could never have built a jetliner, but, like their counterparts of centuries ago, they were skilled and ruthless at piracy.

One lesson to be drawn from this catastrophe is that American and European intellectuals have been very foolish to treat religious belief with patronizing disdain, as a remnant of pre-modernist thought that is doomed to fade in importance as mankind becomes more technologically advanced. I hope we will hear no more of that complacent illusion. The beliefs that the terrorists held, however misguided or evil, were powerful enough to make them very dangerous.

One of the results of the terrorist attack will surely be a vastly increased interest in Islam in particular, and religious faith in general. This is not a subject that even a technologically advanced and wealthy nation can afford any longer to ignore. People who believe in things that rationalists consider impossible may also be able to do things that rationalists consider impossible. If faith made the terrorists dangerous, then faith is something we had better learn to understand, in order to employ it for good purposes.  

Phillip E. Johnson is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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