Politics, culture and the social sciences.
It’s easy to think that ISIS is some sort of evil, medieval cancer that somehow has resurfaced in the modern world. The rest of us are pursuing happiness, and here comes this fundamentalist anachronism, spreading death.
But in his book “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” the brilliant Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that ISIS is in fact typical of what we will see in the decades ahead.
The 21st century will not be a century of secularism, he writes. It will be an age of desecularization and religious conflicts.
Part of this is simply demographic. Religious communities produce lots of babies and swell their ranks, while secular communities do not. The researcher Michael Blume looked back as far as ancient India and Greece and concluded that every nonreligious population in history has experienced demographic decline.
Humans also are meaning-seeking animals. We live, as Sacks writes, in a century that “has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” The secular substitutes for religion — nationalism, racism and political ideology — have all led to disaster. So many flock to religion, sometimes — especially within Islam — to extremist forms.
This is already leading to religious violence. In November 2014, just to take one month, there were 664 jihadist attacks in 14 countries, killing a total of 5,042 people. Since 1984, an estimated 1.5 million Christians have been killed by Islamist militias in Sudan.
Sacks emphasizes that it is not religion itself that causes violence. In their book Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,800 conflicts and found that less than 10 percent had any religious component at all.
Rather, religion fosters groupishness, and the downside of groupishness is conflict with people outside the group. Religion can lead to thick moral communities, but in extreme forms it can also lead to what Sacks calls pathological dualism, a mentality that divides the world between those who are unimpeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad.
The pathological dualist can’t reconcile his humiliated place in the world with his own moral superiority. He embraces a politicized religion — restoring the caliphate — and seeks to destroy those outside his group by apocalyptic force. This leads to acts of what Sacks calls altruistic evil, or acts of terror in which the self-sacrifice involved somehow is thought to confer the right to be merciless and unfathomably cruel.
That’s what we saw in Paris last week.
Sacks correctly argues that we need military weapons to win the war against fanatics like ISIS, but we need ideas to establish a lasting peace. Secular thought or moral relativism are unlikely to offer any effective rebuttal. Among religious people, mental shifts will be found by reinterpreting the holy texts themselves. There has to be a Theology of the Other: a complex biblical understanding of how to see God’s face in strangers. That’s what Sacks sets out to do.
The great religions are based on love, and they satisfy the human need for community. But love is problematic. Love is preferential and particular. Love excludes and can create rivalries. Love of one scripture can make it hard to enter sympathetically into the minds of those who embrace another.
Re “Peace Within the Texts” (column, Nov. 17):
David Brooks writes: “The secular substitutes for religion — nationalism, racism and political ideology — have all led to disaster.”
So it appears that, if I am not religious, I must be a nationalist, a racist, and/or a political ideologue. Am I the only secularist who is deeply offended by this implication?
The true secular substitute for religion is reason. If that is not enough to get us through this current terrorism crisis, then we might as well say goodbye to civilization.
S. T. JOSHI
Of course, Author is a bit unexact. The secular substitutes for religion are reason (science, based on facts), and holiness of our existence in the Universe. Our responsibility before future generations and civilizations, and possibility and duty to leave to them the planet Earth not destroyed but appropriate for survival. I.V.