Terror: Can We Blame Religion?

In the wake of recent terror attacks, Western society has jumped to an easy and, it might seem, obvious conclusion. Seeking to eradicate terrorism means discovering the motivations of the terrorists. Not a difficult task, many would say. The perpetrators of the attacks on Glasgow, London, Bali, Madrid, New York and other places have all claimed inspiration from their religion. Osama bin Laden justified the World Trade Center attacks by quoting the Qur’an, while Jim Walker of NoBeliefs.com rejects all subtleties in declaring that “belief causes terrorism.” If religion is the cause, many argue, then surely eradicating all forms of belief would remove terror from our world.

Neuroscience researcher Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, is one who agrees. He contends that religion propagates myths that are dangerous, and that the world would be far better off without them. In an essay titled “Science Must Destroy Religion,” he claims that only when religion is eradicated “will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.” Elsewhere he writes that “intellectual honesty is better (more enlightened, more useful, less dangerous, more in touch with reality, etc.) than dogmatism. The degree to which science is committed to the former, and religion to the latter remains one of the most salient and appalling disparities to be found in human discourse.”

The new U.K. edition of Letter to a Christian Nation features an introduction by celebrated evolutionist Richard Dawkins, with whom Harris appears to be in perfect accord. Dawkins, speaking in a British documentary titled The Trouble With Atheism, declared: “I think that the crimes done in the name of religion really do follow from religious faith. I don’t think anyone could say the same with atheism.”

Statements such as these are becoming more and more prevalent as society attempts to explain the problems that transfix and plague our modern era. The evidence seems to be stacked against religion; and, without close inspection, it might be difficult to discern whether religious belief has any benefits at all. Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud proposed a secular worldview well over a century ago, so what need have we of religion? Harris, Dawkins and many others suggest that religion is an outdated and dangerous leftover that a mature society would do well to eradicate. It’s said that secularism offers all the explanations religion once did, without any of the unreasonable violence and hatred. It is the calm, objective societal force that destructive religion can never be.

What both Harris and Dawkins seem to overlook, however, is that religion has never been the unique instigator of violence. Avid followers and enemies of religion alike have acted throughout history in similarly destructive ways. People of both persuasions have at times operated in the same unbending and despotic fashion that many ascribe solely to religion. For every Spanish Inquisition—two and a half centuries of appalling ethnic cleansing—there’s a Sir Francis Galton, the half cousin and follower of Charles Darwin who recommended weeding out the weakest of society through eugenics. It is easy to see the influence Sir Francis’s theory had on confessed admirer Adolf Hitler.

Terror was practised during the last century on a scale unequalled at any other time in history, but unlike the terror that is most feared today much of it was done in the service of secular hopes.” 

John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia

Even a cursory examination of secular societies unearths some exceedingly repulsive and brutal actions, all perpetrated by people who publicly rejected religious belief. According to political philosopher John Gray, “terror was practised during the last century on a scale unequalled . . . [and] much of it was done in the service of secular hopes” (Black Mass, 2007).

The Soviet Union was a professedly secular society. Under Joseph Stalin, it indulged in untold cruelties and murders. The height of Stalin’s brutality, the Great Terror of 1937–38, encompassed 18 months in which hundreds of thousands met their death by firing squad. Untold thousands of others died from starvation, inhumane conditions and sheer viciousness. Life in the forced labor world of the Gulags was recorded by only a few—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, among others—who braved Soviet censure by publishing their experiences.

Solzhenitsyn retells the story of Anna Skripnikova, who, on the eve of her fifth imprisonment in 1952, was told, “The prison doctor reports you have a blood pressure of 240/120. . . . We’re going to drive it up to 340 so you’ll kick the bucket, you viper, and with no black and blue marks; no beatings; no broken bones. We’ll just not let you sleep.”

Anna was in her fifties at the time and had endured a life of imprisonment for trumped-up charges. And hers was just one of millions of similar stories. The truly frightening aspect of the Soviet terror, though, is that there is no way to accurately assess the extent of its cruelty, as Soviet officials were encouraged to destroy (or fail to create) records of suffering.

Late-18th-century France provides a further example. It is particularly relevant here, as the French Revolution was a powerful inspiration for the Bolsheviks. Indeed, Lenin viewed both the Revolution and the revolutionaries as models for discipline in his new Bolshevik society. He drew lessons from “the Jacobins, who were defeated because they did not guillotine enough people; and . . . the Paris Commune, which was defeated because its leaders did not shoot enough people” (Aleksandr Nekrich and Mikhail Heller, Utopia in Power, 1982, 1986). Many hold the French revolt against the aristocracy as a symbol of the modern world’s embracing of secular freedom and progress. Indeed, the movement’s slogan—Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort! (Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death!)—retains its strength both in France and around the Western world. What many forget, though, are the atrocities that were committed in the name of these secular ideals.

The Jacobins are notorious examples of malicious secular despots. In the pursuit of a de-Christianized France, some of their leaders, including Jacques Hébert, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette and Joseph Fouché, advocated La Culte de la Raison, the unquestioning adherence to atheistic reason. They determined to force this “culte” on their fractured nation, but their enthusiasm led to the slaughter of thousands of men and women in what historian Christopher Hibbert calls “the worst excesses” of the Revolution. During the 1793 Reign of Terror, Fouché—“one of the most dreaded of the Jacobins”—ultimately “decided that the guillotine was too slow an instrument for their purpose and had over three hundred of their victims mown down by cannon fire” (The Days of the French Revolution, 1980, 1999).

And there are more recent examples. Saddam Hussein led an Iraqi nation that “was thoroughly secular, [ruled] by a western-style legal code,” according to Gray. Yet that did not prevent untold oppression and brutality. The Human Rights Watch estimates that Hussein’s government “murdered or ‘disappeared’ some quarter of a million Iraqis, if not more.”

Does this mean that atheism or secularism is to blame for such slaughter? It would be hard to argue this. It simply shows that in these cases religion is not the cause of violence and terror. The absence of religion did not equal the absence of violence; the Jacobin Terror and Stalin’s purges demonstrate as much. On the other hand, the Spanish Inquisition and Islamic terrorism show that atheism is not the sole cause either. Indeed, many religionists are largely peaceful, as are many secularists. To ascribe the urge to violence to either is plainly unreasonable. Instead, we must search deeper.

What all of these incidents of violence have in common is an overwhelming and blinding desire to impose one’s beliefs on others. Stalin and Hussein aimed for unbridled power; the Jacobins, like today’s al-Qaeda, hoped to convert the world to their own worldview. Even Dawkins’s and Harris’s recent tomes fall inside this tradition, belonging to a genre of books that is among the most ideologically violent in modern publishing. This desire to oppress aggressively is not uncommon; it is evident from the playground to the tyrannical regime.

Nietzsche, if asked, would have placed the responsibility for war and violence with our own conflicting human nature. In his tour de force, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he wrote, “The body is a great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace” (emphasis added). As scientist and theologian Alister McGrath comments, Nietzsche showed that “there seems to be something about human nature which makes our belief systems capable of inspiring both great acts of goodness and great acts of depravity” (Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, 2005). These words call to mind the symbolism of the two trees in the biblical Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve preferred to eat from the tree representing the knowledge of good and evil, an act that brought into being the anomaly of which Nietzsche spoke.

The cause for terror and violence lies somewhere within our inner nature. The apostle James explained this in his epistle, the earliest of the apostolic letters: “Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way. . . . You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it” (James 4:1–2, The Message Bible).

In effect, blaming terror and violence on religion, as many today are too eager to do, is both dangerously reductive and shirks responsibility for the world. What many forget is that religion, as most of us know it, is a man-made construct, far divorced from the principles and values that God originally intended for humanity. Under this light, religion and atheism are both human designs and are therefore very similar in character. That both can act in aggressive and cruel ways is no surprise, as each emanates from the same source: religion, atheism and terrorism are all products of humanity’s primary and at times violent nature.