Recently former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote that religious extremism and terrorism would be the main cause of conflict in the current century. Claiming that these were an 'abuse of religion' and a 'perversion of faith', Blair argued that a major policy issue facing governments was how to combat the 'false view of religion' promoted by extremists.
While such comments underline the significance of religion as a force to be reckoned with in the modern world, they also show how poorly it is understood by public figures, and how important it is that a more sophisticated understanding of the nature and dynamics of religion are needed. Blair's simplistic notions about an 'abuse' or 'perversion' of faith fly in the face of what scholars have widely recognised: that religion is not necessarily moderate and peaceful, and that violent images and beliefs in the sanctity of one's cause - and of the heretical nature of other views - are often central motivating themes of traditions, their followers and their deities. Such themes can be found in just about any religious tradition, whether in the malevolent nature of deities such as the God of the Old Testament, who may strike down those who displease them, in doctrines that divide the world into good and evil, and portray non-believers as sinners, and in texts replete with images of sacred conflict and punishment.
Religions commonly claim to possess and articulate an absolute truth (would anyone be attracted to a religion that did not say it was right?) and thus they - sometimes explicitly - view all others (as well as people of no faith) as wrong. In the eyes of ardent believers, indeed, anyone who rejects the 'truth' that their faith or god represents, may be seen as a sinner meriting punishment. Such views clearly motivated the men who carried out the September 11 2001 attacks in the USA, and they were expressed also to me by members of the Japanese religion Aum Shinrikyo, whose attack on the Tokyo subway attack in 1995 was part of what it saw as a cosmic war between its absolute truth and the sinful materialism of the mundane world. My research on Aum showed just how important faith was as a factor in its violence. Its guru Asahara Shoko and his followers believed that modern society was so corrupted by materialism that it had to be destroyed. Confronting the evils of this world - and of those who lived in it - was a sacred task, part of a spiritually charged mission to eliminate evil and bring about a new spiritual realm on earth. Scholars who have examined the motives behind atrocities such as the 9/11 attacks, have noted something similar: that their perpetrators were fired by faith, and believed that they were carrying out sacred acts through which they would be spiritually rewarded while those they attacked would be punished for rejecting the truths that the attackers espoused.
While this does not mean all religions are inherently violent, it does tell us that religion is far more complex than Blair's portrayal suggests. Dismissing violence and extremism as perversions of faith (when they could be seen, from another angle, as emphatic declarations of faith) precludes us from properly analysing and understanding the root causes of violent actions carried out by people who see those deeds as manifestations of their faith. Yet such understandings are crucial to the wellbeing of our society and (as Blair recognises) to the formulation of government policies; they are questions anyone with an interest in the modern world needs to address and are central to the teaching and study we do as we seek to understand the dynamics of religion in all its manifestations in the contemporary world.
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Professor Ian Reader teaches on our BA Religious Studies programme.
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