Religious Fanaticism: When Belief Becomes Perverse

Religious fanaticism is perverse, a sinister mutation from, already unhealthy, religious fundamentalism.

Right now the cutthroat Islamic State is foremost in the news. A few centuries ago, Christian fanaticism in the Crusades would have made the headlines and evening news. They were equally brutal, barbaric, and certainly not very Jesus-like as they raped and killed Muslims and Jews to rescue the Holy Land from the “infidels.”

In the “Peoples Crusade” an army of around 10,000 men, women and children set off in the early summer of 1096 for the Rhine valley. The fired-up crusaders massacred thousands of Jews in the German cities of Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, all in God’s holy cause. When the crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they killed Muslims, Jews, and even native Christians who threatened their control of the Holy Places. Another rage of Christian fanaticism came a few centuries later with the Spanish Inquisition.

After Osama bin Laden’s fatwa in 1998, the world started looking at Muslim fundamentalism and radical “jihad.” Bin Laden’s fundamentalist concept, however, was far different from the actual meaning of the term. (Fundamentalists in all religions adapt — and even fabricate — parts of their traditions to fit their immediate goals and ideologies.) Within an authentic understanding of Islam, “jihad” means struggling for a certain and generally positive spiritual objective. In the Qur’an “jihad” does not endorse acts of military aggression.

I often remind people, in my lectures about fundamentalism (and I have another big one in November), that Muslims once led the world in science, mathematics, literature, and philosophy. Most of my listeners, however, remain incredulous, because the media have done a good job of programming people to see Islam as sinister and destructive; and of course because Muslim fundamentalists and fanatics have excelled in terrorism and violence, tarnishing the image of Islam, and making Muslims, in general, despicable in the eyes of other communities.

Yes… I think one can really say that the biggest threat to peace and security facing the world today is the rise of religious fanaticism and extremism among some people who claim to be Muslims. To be sure, fanaticism is not confined to Muslims alone, but is found to exist in other religious groups, too. But what we are currently finding among Muslims looks much worse in magnitude.

So what should we do? What can we do? We can bomb and kill the fanatics. History, however, is quite clear that killing fanatics guarantees a new group of fanatics and turns the fanatic-killers into fanatics as well; and every bomb on a fanatic fundamentalist stronghold is a boomerang.

On August 27th, fifty-three Catholic and Protestant leaders sent a letter to President Barack Obama, to halt American airstrikes and pursue peaceful means to resolve the conflict. (See: ) They suggest an eight-point program:

(1) Stop U.S. bombing in Iraq to prevent bloodshed, instability and the accumulation of grievances that contribute to the global justification for the Islamic State’s existence among its supporters.

(2) Provide robust humanitarian assistance to those who are fleeing the violence. Provide food and much needed supplies in coordination with the United Nations.

(3) Engage with the UN, all Iraqi political and religious leaders, and others in the international community on diplomatic efforts for a lasting political solution for Iraq; and work for a political settlement to the crisis in Syria.

(4) Support community-based nonviolent resistance strategies to transform the conflict and meet the deeper need and grievances of all parties.

(5) Strengthen financial sanctions against armed actors in the region by working through the UN Security Council. For example, disrupting the Islamic State’s $3 million/day oil revenue from the underground market would go a long way toward blunting violence.

(6) Bring in and significantly invest in professionally trained unarmed civilian protection organizations to assist and offer some buffer for displaced persons and refugees, both for this conflict in collaboration with Iraqi’s and for future conflicts.

(7) Call for and uphold an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict. U.S. arms and military assistance to the government forces and ethnic militias in Iraq, in addition to arming Syrian rebel groups, have only fueled the carnage, in part due to weapons intended for one group being taken and used by others.

(8) Support Iraqi civil society efforts to build peace, reconciliation, and accountability at the community level.

I would add that we all – Christians and Muslims and Jews — need to engage in local and broad-based educational programs that: (a) inform about authentic religious beliefs and traditions in all three Abrahamic religions; and (b) inform parishes, Mosque, and synagogue communities about the nature of religious fundamentalism and how to defuse it by practicing healthy religion.

Inter-religious dialogue is not just a polite and appropriate exercise. It is essential for our global life and security.


What We Say about God Says a Lot about Us

Approximately 92% of Americans believe in God; but have very different conceptions about who or what God is.

In 2010 by two Baylor University professors, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, wrote a book about what Americans say about God and how their view of God says a lot about their politics and morality. Looking over some materials for a university course I am teaching this first semester, I took a look, once again, at their book: America’s Four Gods (Oxford University Press). The book was based on a 2005 survey of religious views; but the findings still resonate with more recent surveys done by Gallup and Pew.

The four American conceptions of God are: the Authoritative God, the Benevolent God, the Critical God, and the Distant God.

(1) Believers in the Authoritative God have strong convictions that God judges human behavior and acts on that judgment, punishing those who are unfaithful or ungodly. This judgment may be leveled via natural disasters or on a more personal scale through illness or misfortune. Approximately 31% of Americans believe in an Authoritative God.

(2) Believers in a Benevolent God see God’s handiwork everywhere: and they see the Benevolent God as mainly a force of positive influence in the world and less willing to condemn individuals. People with an Authoritative view of God are more likely to believe that God either caused a bad event to happen or allowed it to happen to teach someone a lesson. People with a Benevolent image of God are unlikely to see God’s hand in the tragedy itself and see evidence of God’s presence in stories of amazing coincidences or apparent miracles that saved people in the midst of the disaster. Approximately 24% of Americans believe in a Benevolent God.

(3) Believers in a Critical God see God as judgmental of humans, but reserving final judgment for the afterlife. Ethnic minorities, the poor, and the exploited often believe in a Critical God. Perhaps because those in need may not see the blessings of God in the here and now, they take comfort in the idea that God’s displeasure will be felt in another life. As one of my friends told me, when thinking about a prominent very wealthy but grossly immoral businessmen, “I take consolation in knowing that God will have the bastard burning forever in hell.” Approximately 16% of Americans believe in a Critical God, who will punish the sinful with an everlasting punishment in the next life.

(4) Believers in a Distant God view God as a cosmic force that set nature in motion. These believers feel that anthropological images of God are simply inadequate and often naïve attempts to know the unknowable. Believers in a Distant God can be regular churchgoers but value religious ritual only when it can be a path to peace and tranquility. Meditation, contemplation, and the beauty of nature are ways in which believers in a Distant God try to relate to the positive force guiding the universe. Approximately 24% of Americans believe in a Distant God. Most millennials would fall into this group. Among believers in the Distant God one finds, as well, the fastest growing “religious” group in contemporary America: they are those people unaffiliated with any organized religion. They consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” (I see them as “seekers” and they are the group I focus most of my attention on these days.)

Adding to the complexity of America’s Four Gods is another religious trend stressed by the Baylor University professors, and further developed by Stephen Prothero from Boston University: increasingly, Americans are becoming religious illiterates — Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name all seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books in the Pentateuch. (I don’t think this religious illiteracy is restricted to just the United States however. One of my Catholic university students in Brussels told me a couple months ago that Pentecost was when the Holy Ghost made Mary pregnant through the visit of the angel Gabriel.)

Perhaps contemporary people, attracted by the four ways of packaging God, are becoming supermarket theists. Rather than drawing on healthy theological perspectives found in Christian tradition and the Scriptures, they are increasingly more inclined to buy the God that best suits their needs or, put another way, the God that best reaffirms their own ideologies. That certainly fits the Authoritative God understanding of the hate group, Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka Kansas. They need a God who hates gays, hates Jews, and despises Catholics.

In any event, there is much to be done in the areas of religious education and catechetics. Serious thoughts as we look to the start of a new school year.


When Cruelty Becomes Religious Virtue

A well-known Israeli politician, Ayelet Shaked, has labeled all Palestinians as terrorists and recommended that mothers of Palestinians, since they give birth to “little snakes,” should be slaughtered. “They have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists,” Shaked said, adding, “They are all our enemies and their blood should be on our hands. This also applies to the mothers of the dead terrorists.”

In the United States, a coalition of more than fifty religious leaders, led by mostly conservative Catholic, evangelical and Jewish activists, is calling on President Obama to sharply escalate military action against Islamic extremists in Iraq. They say “nothing short of the destruction” of the Islamic State can protect Christians and religious minorities now being subjected to “a campaign of genocide.” A key leader in the coalition is Robert P. George, a well-known Catholic conservative and political activist.

George drafted the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto signed by Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical leaders that “promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.”

Tragically, advocates of aggressive religious wars can still be found today in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What these fanatic religious aggressors cannot legitimately claim, however, is that their positions are authentic expressions of their faiths. Every major religious tradition contains ethical principles that are incompatible with total war.

Religious xenophobia, nevertheless, is alive everywhere these days. Flying across the Atlantic, from Brussels to Chicago, a few months ago, a Muslim woman, wrapped up for prayer and praying, was sitting quietly in an aisle seat, a row in front of me. (All of a Muslim woman’s body must be covered during prayer, except for her face and hands.) A middle-aged businessman sitting next to me, nudged me and rather sarcastically whispered “Just look at her….Isn’t that disgusting.” I chuckled a bit and said “well what do you think about the lady two seats behind you?” (Behind him was a small and elderly Roman Catholic nun, saying her rosary, but equally wrapped up with only her forehead, eyes, nose, mouth and chin visible.) “She doesn’t bother me,” he said, “because she’s normal and good.”

For more than thirty years I have been studying the impact of religion and religions on political and cultural values. Religions can generate a lot of heat and hatred. (I learned a year ago that, if one wants a pleasant time while vacationing on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia, one does not ask or speak about the Serbs.) Religious people, in the name of their religion, can regress and virtue can become cruel inhumanity. The issue, however, is more fundamental than fanatical religion. It is about a human failure at being human.

Seeing the “other” as a threat to personal or group identity, security, or power. The other becomes the enemy. Life becomes a battle between “them” and “us,” and we have been watching it play out this month in Gaza, Iraq, Ferguson, Missouri….and at the Vatican, where the “them” is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

One can condemn, bomb, shoot, rape, or kill the “them” but such human violence always has a boomerang effect that slaughters “us” as well.

Apparent short-term solutions…with long-term destructive reverberations.

There is no quick solution; but, like combating Ebola, we have to research, think, and act. We have to start the process of seeing and accepting “them” as really part of “us.” The process is one of education and developing a sense of cultural and religious humility in our acceptance of the other’s right to be part of “us.”

Last year I spent an afternoon speaking to and with a group of sixty Imams in Brussels. The theme was freedom of religious expression. The event started very awkwardly, because I (unfortunately) had been introduced as an American Catholic theologian who had something to tell them. I walked to the microphone and could see a lot of angry eyes staring at me. So I cautiously started: “Actually I come today not as an American and not as a Catholic but as, like you, a son of the Abrahamic tradition which Islam honors as well as Christianity and Judaism. We are indeed brothers in a great religious tradition….”

The afternoon concluded on a positive note and I have been invited to return for another “discussion.” I insisted that Muslims have every right to live in peace and practice their faith and do not deserve negative and degrading rhetoric or actions. I insisted as well that Christians and Jews have every right to live in peace and practice their faith and do not deserve negative and degrading rhetoric or actions. I promised as well that in my parish I would hold a series of adult and youth information sessions about Mohammed and Muslim traditions. I asked them to do the same; and I met afterwards with four young women who are Muslim “catechists.” A small start….

When I told one of my friends what I was going to write about this week end, he said he was surprised that I was becoming a “soft old do-gooder-dreamer.” I chuckled and said I was indeed getting old but neither soft nor a “do-gooder”….just trying to do what I think Jesus of Nazareth would do in our situation: reaching out rather than striking out.

That is not easy. It is hard to do. The alternative of course is mutual destruction….


The Holy Control Factor

Authoritarian leaders thrive on control, especially if they are male authoritarians and they seek to control women…..and more especially if they are authoritarian religious men. We see it in the news each day, in often heart-rending reports. Whether Christian, Muslim, or Jew, authoritarian religious leaders think God is a guy who gives guys the right to control the non-guys.

This week we have seen another mysogynist authoritarian outburst from Rome. Pope Francis, however, of “Who am I to judge?” fame, has been deadly silent. He did say in June that women were “the most beautiful thing God has made,” and joked that women “came from a rib.”

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition) now directed by Prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller, is not happy with LCWR — the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. He told them that, as of August 1, 2014, LCWR must clear, with a bishop overseer, any assembly speakers and honorees.

Joan Chittister, who was President of LCWR in 1976, described the situation quite succinctly, in her NCR column this week:

Next week, for instance, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will face decisions that will move the question of the agency of women in a man’s church either forward or back. Strange as it may seem in the 21st century, the issue is whether or not women are capable of hearing diverse speakers and still remain faithful Catholics. The issue is whether or not women religious may discuss various points of view on major issues and still remain faithful Catholics. The issue is whether or not women religious can manage their own organizations and still be faithful Catholics. The Vatican’s answer to those questions is no. For the last 45 years, however, LCWR’s answer to those same questions has been a clear and persistent yes.

The members of LCWR will gather August 12-16 in Nashville, Tenn., for their annual assembly. At that time, more than 800 elected leaders will discuss how they plan to react to continued charges of infidelity leveled by the church’s top enforcer of orthodoxy and the Sacred Congregation’s plans to take control over LCWR.

I have been following LCWR ever since they started, almost fifty years ago. They were approved by the US Bishops and by the Vatican, as THE association of women religious to represent American women religious.

Things began to go wrong however, when LCWR leadership and its members became better theologically educated than many of their hierarchical critics. Grounded in a solid biblical and historical understanding of their faith, the women of LCWR moved forward, probing the questions of contemporary faith and life. Their ecclesiastical critics, meanwhile, had begun their pious retreat, back to a triumphant nineteenth century Catholic ethos, where Father always knew best.

I will be praying for LCWR. History in the making this coming week!


The Great War

Today is the first day of August 2014. One hundred years ago this month, the Great War began spreading across Europe. World War I commemorations are now shifting into high gear. I will attend more than a few of them this year; and my son has written a very fine book about the First World War in Belgium.

It seems to me, there are two great things the Great War accomplished very effectively: First, it was a great human slaughter, leaving more than 16 million dead and more than 20 million wounded. Secondly, it greatly set the stage and laid the foundations for the Second World War.

For many years, teaching historical theology and theological ethics, I was very good at laying down the principles for “a just war.”

Just before President G.W. Bush launched his War in Iraq, I was invited to give a one day lecture and discussion, to about thirty US Catholic Chaplains in Europe, on the principles of a just war and whether or not those principles would apply to an impending war in Iraq.

I reviewed the principles in an overhead slide presentation. Then I said slowly and firmly: “gentlemen I don’t see how it can be justified.” One of our American auxiliary bishops, from the Military Archdiocese, who was attending my presentation, banged the table, stood up, and left the room in an angry rage. (He got in his military chauffeured car and disappeared.)

A very youngish chaplain then began to sob. He looked at me and said: “So what will we do when it happens?” Some of the older chaplains were a bit peeved by the young priest. I looked at him across the room, eye to eye and said: “You go to Iraq and you must be the best chaplain you can be to those men and women, because they will need you, an understanding and supportive chaplain, more than ever.”

Ah yes….the ethical principles for a just war. A much older man now, I am absolutely convinced that the very idea of a just war is impossible. Justice is lost as soon as the fighting begins.

War is not about victory or defeat. It is about the total failure of the human spirit……in Gaza, in the Ukraine, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Pick your location. There are many to choose from.

Today’s wars are only greatly killing people, destroying cities and the countryside; and greatly setting the stage and laying the foundations for tomorrow’s wars.

We are bright and talented people. We can conceive and create ever-mini, mini-computers and ever-smarter, smartphones. It is time that we conceive and create the strategies and structures for living peacefully with each-other.

For Christians, making-peace is not just a challenge it is a responsibility.