Religion and the War Against Evil
I have tried for many years to make religious people appreciate how indispensable the secular critics of religion are. Without them religions are tempted to pride, pomposity and power-grabbing. The critics of religion are the allies of the prophets. No one was harder on the religious of their day than Amos and Jeremiah and Jesus. I have also tried to help serious nonreligious people understand why many other serious people are religious, and why faith may be a little something more than what Jesse Ventura calls a crutch for the weak-minded. I have undertaken this effort because I am convinced that when religious traditions and their critics--either ideologies or other religions--interacted with each other openly, remarkable new insights often emerged. But my task has not been an easy one, and it is not helped by the diehards on either side who refuse to entertain any thought of significant conversation. I have met both religious and secular fundamentalists, and they bear an uncanny resemblance to each other.
Both sides now need to reconnoiter. We as religious thinkers must stop simply making nice about this age of ecumenism, interfaith dialogue and fuzzy feelings among priests, imams and rabbis. We need to take a step toward candor. In response to a secularized intelligentsia, at least in the West, we have tried too hard to put a positive face on religion, when the truth is we know that all religions have their demonic underside. We quote Isaiah, not Joel. We talk about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, not Rabbi Meir Kahane. We favor St. Francis and his birds, not Torquemada and his racks. Alas, however, they are all part of the story. Telling just the children's version will no longer do.
Some have glumly suggested that the twentieth century was the one in which the nonreligious ideologies--nationalism, fascism, communism--played out their deadly games with lethal consequences, and that now religions (or religiously shaped "civilizations") will play out theirs. But this need not be the case. Not if we can transcend the nasty rhetoric--religious and antireligious alike--and tackle the common task of helping one another figure out how we got to this unpromising point and how we can get through it without making things worse. If this is not a war against evil, or against Islam, or "the West against the rest," then where do we start to sort this out?
There is one place we should not start. Recently Salman Rushdie argued in an Op-Ed article in the New York Times that this is a war between medieval obscurantism and modernity. Last month the Washington Post's lead editorial complained about the "anti-modern propaganda" emanating from the Arab press. The clear implication is that we in the West should all now lay aside our petty quarrels and rally around the standard of modernity. But is this really the common ground we gratefully share, or the banner we gallantly unfurl? Modernity has undoubtedly brought us some benefits. But do we really believe that its curious amalgam of formal democracy, consumer capitalism, trivialized mass culture, ever-higher-tech communications and American global hegemony is what we should be dispatching the B-52s to defend? Is this to be a war to make the world safe for modernity? Is anyone who finds something amiss about modernity to be lumped with the obscurantists?
I hope not. After all, modernity itself has generated some of its most persuasive critics. The philosophers of the Frankfurt School demonstrated how the Enlightenment soon became its own sacred myth. French humanists eloquently cautioned us about the seductions of technologism. Poets have warned about the "waste land" and artists have painted their deep misgivings on numberless canvases. Even economists, not always the first to grasp the obvious, are becoming uncertain as they watch market economies, the sine qua non of modernity, drive an ever deeper wedge between the rich and the poor. The atrocity that struck the American homeland in September was already a familiar one to the millions who live every day amid the daily horror of dislocation and destitution.
Religious thinkers have been among the most articulate critics of the myth of a benevolent modernity. One thinks of movements like the Social Gospel or Liberation Theology, or of writers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Emmanuel Levinas. But they have hardly carried the torch alone. In fact, the "critique of modernity" has been a common enterprise of religious and nonreligious thinkers alike. Still, it seems we have not yet quite won the argument. And now we are being advised that because Al Qaeda despises modernity, Western intellectuals should of course defend it down to our last brilliant article and sonorous talk-show contribution.
Again, I hope not. Someday, sooner or later, the movements against which the US coalition is fighting will fall. Maybe then it will become clear not only that we are not the Great Satan of the terrorists' rhetoric but that they are not the incarnation of evil pictured in ours. As we hear President Putin deftly answering questions on American radio and TV, it is easy to forget how recently the Soviet Union was the "evil empire." But when the guns have fallen silent, evil in its many guises--some of them lushly beguiling--will still prowl among us. Remember that the Devil is an angel of light. Meanwhile, we should resist becoming the office of propaganda fidei in a spurious metaphysical crusade against evil or in a wagon-circling defense of modernity. Rather, our task is to search for a comprehensive alternative to the "modernity" that--though certainly not the Arch Fiend--is arguably the most widely circulated and most destructive myth abroad today, all the more so because it is so alluring, at least to those who benefit from it. Creating an alternative paradigm, however, will be a daunting venture. It will continue to require the best imagination of poets and artists, and the philosophical resources of religious and nonreligious thinkers alike.