War is hell. And hell—or at least heaven—makes war all the more hellish. Mohamed Merah the Islamic terrorist who recently murdered three French soldiers, three Jewish children and their rabbi was a person of faith. After considering surrender, Mr. Merah opted for a fight to death saying, “If it’s me [who dies], who cares? I’ll go to paradise.” And that’s where religion comes in.
Mohamed Merah said he was avenging the deaths of his brothers in Afghanistan, and for that he needed no religious sanction. There are plenty of secular terrorists, just look at the growth in the militia movement in the US. But he saw his killing as a religious act for which God would reward him in heaven. He didn’t fear death, but welcomed it.
Yesterday in my class on Religion and Pop Culture we compared two films: Jesus Camp and Obsession. In both films there are scenes of little kids in deep emotional stress triggered by their adult teachers who led them in war chants and rhythmic dances. “This is war! This is war! This is war!” the leader of Jesus Camp chanted, and while some of my students did their best to say she was talking about “spiritual warfare” and not actually killing people, it was clear to most of us that there was no difference in the impact war fever had on Christian and Muslim little children. How did we get from Jesus’ “suffer the little children” to make little children suffer? Religion.
But not just the brand religions. Think of Hitler Youth during the 1930s and 40s. Think of soccer riots. Think of any situation in which you abdicate your self to the mob, and those who lead it. Once you have identified with the mass, the fate of the person, even your own person, is irrelevant. And that is both what scares me and gives me hope.
It scares me because so much of what passes for religion (broadly defined) is simply the capturing of the individual mind and enlisting it in the service to the group mind. It gives me hope in that it sets out the antidote to religious madness: maintaining your integrity and autonomy as a freethinking individual.
I am not opposed to faith. I am opposed to mindlessness. A religion, philosophy, political position that honors and promotes the freedom of thought and individual autonomy does not produce terrorists. So don’t imagine you have to abandon faith, only ask yourself whether your faith is demanding that you abandon your self.