Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… John Lennnon, Imagine
The words John Lennon wrote are so simple, and yet they hold a world of meaning. On this anniversary of 9/11, it’s difficult to ignore his words, and it’s hard to bury our heads in the sand regarding the reality of what he proposes in his song. He says “imagine…no religion.” As painful as it is for some to hear, as offended as people get when their beliefs are questioned, and as vulnerable as someone becomes when he or she poses such ideas, the fact remains that if were not for religion, 9/11 would not have happened. If there were no religion, the Twin Towers would be standing, and those lost souls who perished on that day would still be with us.
The men who flew two planes into the Twin Towers in New York were religious zealots; Muslim extremists intent on Jihad. Their religion was Islam, but they were no different from any religious zealot who would kill in the name of God. There is something inherent in religion that has the potential to invite extremism among those who have the capacity to become extreme in a way that does no other “opiate of the masses.” Religious motivations have been responsible for countless wars and bloodshed so great it can’t be measured.
It is difficult to pinpoint another belief system, way of living or interest which encourages so much violence. There are people who are interested in, even passionate about, all kinds of things; but you’d be hard pressed to find golfers, for example, blowing each other up because they thought their course was better than someone else’s. Vegans can sometimes be extremely dedicated to their belief system, almost to the point where it becomes a sort of spirituality for some, but there has been no instance of a vegan flying a plane into a steakhouse.
So it’s religion that is the belief system that most inspires people to become suicide bombers, commit horrific acts like what happened on 9/11, shoot an abortion doctor or burn down a synagogue. Some people believe that there are certain religions which seem to invite more violence than others, but all major religions have violent pasts. This is clearly seen throughout history beginning before the crusades and extending indefinitely into the future.
Finding examples of Buddhist extremists, at least in the past, has not been all that easy, but now, even that is starting to change. What was once a peaceful and traditionally non-violent religion for the most part has become poisoned by its surrounding environment. There is now great unrest in Burma, where Muslims are a tiny minority, incited partly by radical Buddhist monk U Wi Sate Ta, who has been waging a violent hate campaign on Muslims since 2001. He refers to himself as “the Burmese Bin Laden,” a term of which he seems to be proud.
So, we can’t turn to Buddhism to find an example of a non-violent religion; we certainly can’t turn to Judiasm either; the Israel-Palestine debate in itself can incite violence in some. We definitely can’t turn to Christianity.
It seems that coming up with a major world religion which is totally non-violent is, sadly, impossible. But why? Why is every major world religion producing so much violent and hateful behavior? Well, it turns out there are inherent concepts present in all of these religions which can easily turn normal people into fundamentalists in a way that no other set of beliefs possibly can.
Author Mark Juergensmeyer who wrote “Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence,” says that while religion is not the sole problem in creating a fanatic who would commit terrorist acts, “it…becomes problematic because religion brings a whole host of absolutistic symbols and images and justifications that act as an accelerant to terrorism.”
It is the absolutism of which Juergensmeyer speaks that is a primary cause of terroristic thinking. Religious texts give rise to the idea of “absolute right” along with the fear of extreme punishment if the doctrine is not followed. Conversely, the promise of ultimate reward for following the doctrine is a powerful psychological propellant. Reward seeking behavior is inherent in humans; it’s the same reason why some people become addicted to gambling or even illegal drugs.
Psychologist James W. Jones, author of “Blood That Cries Out From the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism,” seems to propose that religion provides a much stronger foundation for terroristic behavior than other belief systems or ideas. “It is not simply the same old terrorism with a different motivation or rhetoric” Jones says, “Research suggests that sacred motivations make a big difference.”
Besides the absolutism of religion, there is the issue of extreme violence within the religious texts themselves. The Old Testament has the character of God killing an estimated 25 million people, while the Quran encourages violence in countless passages. Yet, when the bloody and savage nature of either of these books is pointed out, when the passages are quoted or reprinted, when the words of God or Allah are repeated, the rage that is incited in believers spares not the observer.
The problem of warmongering and bloodshed in the texts which form the bases for these religions cannot be overlooked; they set the tone and provide the structure for how religious believers should conduct themselves. Many people can look past the “rivers flowing red with blood” (Revelations 16:4), but unfortunately, many cannot.
Furthermore, the idea of a value being sacred increases a combatant’s violent opposition. This is proven in a study conducted in 2007 and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The researchers write:
We report a series of experiments carried out with Palestinian and Israeli participants showing that violent opposition to compromise over issues considered sacred is (i) increased by offering material incentives to compromise but (ii) decreased when the adversary makes symbolic compromises over their own sacred values. These results demonstrate some of the unique properties of reasoning and decision-making over sacred values. We show that the use of material incentives to promote the peaceful resolution of political and cultural conflicts may backfire when adversaries treat contested issues as sacred values.
This proves that the idea of a value being “sacred,” or “absolute,” is causal in an increase in violent behavior. In the study, material offers, like money, were rejected as terms of reconciliation while offers of symbolic gestures such as compromising of religious values of the opponent were more likely to be accepted. That shows that not even greed or a desire for wealth is as strong a motivation for violence as is religious belief. Do people kill over money? Sure; but not as often as they do over religion.
Not only does the idea of religious/absolute/sacred values cause an increase in violent behavior, the threat of any perceived restriction on those values increases violence among religious groups. PEW conducted a study that showed “Sectarian or communal violence between religious groups has the strongest association with government restrictions on religion.”
Placing all the studies to the side for a moment and letting common sense take over, imagine what would have happened on 9/11 if there were no religion.
Imagine a sunny day, about 70 degrees. Imagine a bright blue sky and white clouds overhead; the first chilly breezes of autumn caressing the trees. New York is awake, vibrant, alive. The streets are crowded, hectic, rushed; but up above, the air is cool, serene. It’s 8:45 a.m. The coffee is percolating as businessmen and women smooth their jackets; hellos are exchanged in the hall. The clouds just hang there as the Twin Towers stretch into the ether; a quiet sky, a brilliant sky. It’s 8:46 a.m.
Imagine all the people.
By: Rebecca Savastio