Religion and the War Against Evil

Religion and the War Against Evil

'Modernity' isn't the archfiend. But as often preached, it appears so to many.


Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war, stir up the mighty men, Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up.
         Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; Let the weak say, "I am a warrior."
         Joel 3:9-10

No, this is not an ironic misquotation of the well-known words from the prophet Isaiah about beating swords into plowshares, which are inscribed on the wall of the UN. This one comes from a later biblical prophet. I have never seen it inscribed on any church or synagogue wall. Little wonder. It is a call to arms, something of an embarrassment to those who would like to claim that although someone else's religion might inspire them to violence, ours certainly does not. And it is not an isolated text. Both the Old and New Testament are replete with similar, if even less widely quoted, ones. According to the Gospel of Matthew, even the Prince of Peace tells his disciples, "I have come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

In the aftermath of September 11, we all learned a lot about religion and the American psyche. Droves of people crowded into prayer and memorial services, lit candles, sang hymns many of them scarcely knew and listened, sometimes in near desperation, to readings from ancient scriptures. Of course, they were looking for sympathy and consolation. But they were also looking for something more, perhaps some intangible frame of reference that might bring a bit of meaning to their rage, fear and bewilderment. It is notable that in a society that is so famously dependent on therapies of all kinds, the therapists were not much in evidence. When the cataclysm came, what the historian Sidney Mead once called "the nation with the soul of a church" groped for something deeper but more elusive. The sheer enormity of the horror visited upon us in Manhattan suddenly made our various feel-good remedies look a bit thin. Neither New Age nostrums nor channeling can help when it comes to such an eruption of primal malice.

In his 1995 book The Death of Satan, subtitled How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, Andrew Delbanco posed what has suddenly become an achingly pertinent question. Now that the classical symbols of radical evil–Satan, apocalypse, etc.–seem to have evaporated, how, he asked, would Americans respond if we ever again experienced radical evil? "I believe our culture is now in crisis," he wrote, "because evil remains an inescapable experience for all of us, while we no longer have a symbolic language for describing it." Some years earlier Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor, asked how we could possibly regain our moral bearings "when we have a sense of evil; but no longer the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil." These are stubborn questions, and I am not sure the classical religious traditions, already so compromised by their quest for a share of the booming spirituality market, will provide the needed help. But I can understand why so many people are foraging around in them. Did Job or Augustine or Dante know something we don't know? I am quite sure, however, that President Bush's response to this symbolic vacuum–namely, that we are now waging a war against evil, and that one day there will be a clear victory–will not satisfy many people for very long.

But Americans also quickly learned something else about religion. The same people who groped for some half-forgotten religious framing for September 11 also quickly discovered that religion can be at least as much a part of the problem as part of the solution. They learned to exercise what scholars call a "hermeneutic of suspicion." First, two celebrity TV evangelists, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, assured them that because of what gays and abortion clinics and the ACLU are up to, God removed his shield and let this happen. The Rev. Franklin Graham made his own contribution to comparative religious studies by stating that the God of Islam is "a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." Then we all read those verses from the Koran the hijackers were advised to meditate on in the minutes before they snuffed out the lives of thousands of people. Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists continued to look around for the next mosque they could pulverize, Christian fans of the Left Behind series smugly assured us that the Last Days were upon us and Jewish settlers on the West Bank and in Gaza pointed again to verses from the book of Joshua that say "conquer" and "settle" is their divine mandate.

Nor should the radical secularists take much "we told you so" comfort from all this. Terrorism has a long and complex genealogy. When I watched the twin towers implode on TV, the scene that flashed into my memory was some footage I had once seen of the Bolsheviks dynamiting the main cathedral of Moscow, at that time the largest church in the Orthodox world. They went on to imprison, exile and murder millions of people in the name of one of the most powerful antireligious ideologies ever concocted. During the Spanish Civil War we saw how Catholics and atheists could massacre each other with equal relish. Religion, it seems, can indeed inspire terrorist horror. But so can nonreligious and antireligious zealotries. We have now reached a point at which mutual recriminations about who has piled up the most corpses begin to sound repetitious and indecent. We are going to have religion, for blessing or for bane, and antireligion, for better or for worse, with us for the foreseeable future. We are also going to have evil with us–for a very long time indeed–and we all know that no war is going to vanquish it. So it may be time to tone down the polemics and try to understand why–after all the faith we so touchingly placed in science or human rationality or God–we keep rehearsing the same old arguments.

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.

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