Think Again: God

As causalities from the world's religious wars mount, God is getting a bad reputation. But the war against God has had its casualties as well. Here's why we need a truce -- and why secularism is almost as much of a threat to the world as fundamentalism.


"God Is Dead."

“God Is Dead.”

No. When Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God in 1882, he thought that in the modern, scientific world people would soon be unable to countenance the idea of religious faith. By the time The Economist did its famous “God Is Dead” cover in 1999, the question seemed moot, notwithstanding the rise of politicized religiosity — fundamentalism — in almost every major faith since the 1970s. An obscure ayatollah toppled the shah of Iran, religious Zionism surfaced in Israel, and in the United States, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority announced its dedicated opposition to “secular humanism.”

But it is only since Sept. 11, 2001, that God has proven to be alive and well beyond all question — at least as far as the global public debate is concerned. With jihadists attacking America, an increasingly radicalized Middle East, and a born-again Christian in the White House for eight years, you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who disagrees. Even The Economist’s editor in chief recently co-authored a book called God Is Back. While many still question the relevance of God in our private lives, there’s a different debate on the global stage today: Is God a force for good in the world?

So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.

These writers are wrong — not only about religion, but also about politics — because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

“God and Politics Shouldn’t Mix.

Not necessarily. Theologically illiterate politicians have long given religion a bad name. An inadequate understanding of God that reduces “him” to an idol in our own image who gives our likes and dislikes sacred sanction is the worst form of spiritual tyranny. Such arrogance has led to atrocities like the Crusades. The rise of secularism in government was meant to check this tendency, but secularism itself has created new demons now inflicting themselves on the world.

In the West, secularism has been a success, essential to the modern economy and political system, but it was achieved gradually over the course of nearly 300 years, allowing new ideas of governance time to filter down to all levels of society. But in other parts of the world, secularization has occurred far too rapidly and has been resented by large sectors of the population, who are still deeply attached to religion and find Western institutions alien.

In the Middle East, overly aggressive secularization has sometimes backfired, making the religious establishment more conservative, or even radical. In Egypt, for example, the remarkable reformer Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) so brutally impoverished and marginalized the clergy that its members turned their backs on change. When the shahs of Iran tortured and exiled mullahs who opposed their regime, some, such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, concluded that more extreme responses on the part of Iran’s future religious rulers were necessary.

Shiism had for centuries separated religion from politics as a matter of sacred principle, and Khomeini’s insistence that a cleric should become head of state was an extraordinary innovation. But moderate religion can play a constructive role in politics. Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905), grand mufti of Egypt, feared that the vast majority of Egyptians would not understand the country’s nascent democratic institutions unless they were explicitly linked with traditional Islamic principles that emphasized the importance of “consultation” (shura) and the duty of seeking “consensus” (ijma) before passing legislation.

In the same spirit, Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, began his movement by translating the social message of the Koran into a modern idiom, founding clinics, hospitals, trade unions, schools, and factories that gave workers insurance, holidays, and good working conditions. In other words, he aimed to bring the masses to modernity in an Islamic setting. The Brotherhood’s resulting popularity was threatening to Egypt’s secular government, which could not provide these services. In 1949, Banna was assassinated, and some members of the Brotherhood splintered into radical offshoots in reaction.

Of course, the manner in which religion is used in politics is more important than whether it’s used at all. U.S. presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama have invoked faith as a shared experience that binds the country together — an approach that recognizes the communal power of spirituality without making any pretense to divine right. Still, this consensus is not satisfactory to American Protestant fundamentalists, who believe the United States should be a distinctively Christian nation.


“God Breeds Violence and Intolerance.

No, humans do. For Hitchens in God Is Not Great, religion is inherently “violent … intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism and bigotry”; even so-called moderates are guilty by association. Yet it is not God or religion but violence itself — inherent in human nature — that breeds violence. As a species, we survived by killing and eating other animals; we also murder our own kind. So pervasive is this violence that it leaks into most scriptures, though these aggressive passages have always been balanced and held in check by other texts that promote a compassionate ethic based on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like them to treat you. Despite manifest failings over the centuries, this has remained the orthodox position.

In claiming that God is the source of all human cruelty, Hitchens and Dawkins ignore some of the darker facets of modern secular society, which has been spectacularly violent because our technology has enabled us to kill people on an unprecedented scale. Not surprisingly, religion has absorbed this belligerence, as became hideously clear with the September 11 atrocities.

But “religious” wars, no matter how modern the tools, always begin as political ones. This happened in Europe during the 17th century, and it has happened today in the Middle East, where the Palestinian national movement has evolved from a leftist-secular to an increasingly Islamically articulated nationalism. Even the actions of so-called jihadists have been inspired by politics, not God. In a study of suicide attacks between 1980 and 2004, American scholar Robert Pape concluded that 95 percent were motivated by a clear strategic objective: to force modern democracies to withdraw from territory the assailants regard as their national homeland.

This aggression does not represent the faith of the majority, however. In recent Gallup polling conducted in 35 Muslim countries, only 7 percent of those questioned thought that the September 11 attacks were justified. Their reasons were entirely political.

Fundamentalism is not conservative. Rather, it is highly innovative — even heretical — because it always develops in response to a perceived crisis. In their anxiety, some fundamentalists distort the tradition they are trying to defend. The Pakistani ideologue Abu Ala Maududi (1903-1979) was the first major Muslim thinker to make jihad, signifying “holy war” instead of the traditional meaning of “struggle” or “striving” for self-betterment, a central Islamic duty. Both he and the influential Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) were fully aware that this was extremely controversial but believed it was justified by Western imperialism and the secularizing policies of rulers such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

All fundamentalism — whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. Qutb developed his ideology in the concentration camps where Nasser interred thousands of the Muslim Brothers. History shows that when these groups are attacked, militarily or verbally, they almost invariably become more extreme.


“God Is for the Poor and Ignorant.”

No. The new atheists insist vehemently that religion is puerile and irrational, belonging, as Hitchens argues, to “the infancy of our society.” This reflects the broader disappointment among Western intellectuals that humanity, confronted with apparently unlimited choice and prosperity, should still rely on what Karl Marx called the “opiate” of the masses.

But God refuses to be outgrown, even in the United States, the richest country in the world and the most religious country in the developed world. None of the major religions is averse to business; each developed initially in a nascent market economy. The Bible and the Koran may have prohibited usury, but over the centuries Jews, Christians, and Muslims all found ways of getting around this restriction and produced thriving economies. It is one of the great ironies of religious history that Christianity, whose founder taught that it was impossible to serve both God and mammon, should have produced the cultural environment that, as Max Weber suggested in his 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, was integral to modern capitalism.

Still, the current financial crisis shows that the religious critique of excessive greed is far from irrelevant. Although not opposed to business, the major faith traditions have tried to counterbalance some of the abuses of capitalism. Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, by means of yoga and other disciplines, try to moderate the aggressive acquisitiveness of the human psyche. The three monotheistic faiths have inveighed against the injustice of unevenly distributed wealth — a critique that speaks directly to the gap between rich and poor in our society.

To recover from the ill effects of the last year, we may need exactly that conquest of egotism that has always been essential in the quest for the transcendence we call “God.” Religion is not simply a matter of subscribing to a set of obligatory beliefs; it is hard work, requiring a ceaseless effort to get beyond the selfishness that prevents us from achieving a more humane humanity.

“God Is Bad for Women.”

Yes. It is unfortunately true that none of the major world religions has been good for women. Even when a tradition began positively for women (as in Christianity and Islam), within a few generations men dragged it back to the old patriarchy. But this is changing. Women in all faiths are challenging their men on the grounds of the egalitarianism that is one of the best characteristics of all these religious traditions.

One of the hallmarks of modernity has been the emancipation of women. But that has meant that in their rebellion against the modern ethos, fundamentalists tend to overemphasize traditional gender roles. Unfortunately, frontal assaults on this patriarchal trend have often proven counterproductive. Whenever “modernizing” governments have tried to ban the veil, for example, women have rushed in ever greater numbers to put it on. In 1935, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi commanded his soldiers to shoot hundreds of unarmed demonstrators who were peacefully protesting against obligatory Western dress in Mashhad, one of Iran’s holiest shrines. Such actions have turned veiling, which was not a universal practice before the modern period, into a symbol of Islamic integrity. Some Muslims today claim that it is not essential to look Western in order to be modern and that while Western fashion often displays wealth and privilege, Islamic dress emphasizes the egalitarianism of the Koran.

In general, any direct Western intervention in gender matters has backfired; it would be better to support indigenous Muslim movements that are agitating for greater opportunities for improved women’s rights in education, the workplace, and politics.


“God Is the Enemy of Science.”

He doesn’t have to be. Science has become an enemy to fundamentalist Christians who campaign against the teaching of evolution in public schools and stem-cell research because they seem to conflict with biblical teaching.

But their reading of scripture is unprecedentedly literal. Before the modern period, few understood the first chapter of Genesis as an exact account of the origins of life; until the 17th century, theologians insisted that if a biblical text contradicted science, it must be interpreted allegorically.

The conflict with science is symptomatic of a reductive idea of God in the modern West. Ironically, it was the empirical emphasis of modern science that encouraged many to regard God and religious language as fact rather than symbol, thus forcing religion into an overly rational, dogmatic, and alien literalism.

Popular fundamentalism represents a widespread rebellion against modernity, and for Christian fundamentalists, evolution epitomizes everything that is wrong with the modern world. It is regarded less as a scientific theory than a symbol of evil. But this anti-science bias is far less common in Judaism and Islam, where fundamentalist movements have been sparked more by political issues, such as the state of Israel, than doctrinal or scientific ones.

“God Is Incompatible with Democracy.”

No. Samuel Huntington foresaw a “clash of civilizations” between the free world and Islam, which, he maintained, was inherently averse to democracy. But at the beginning of the 20th century, nearly all leading Muslim intellectuals were in love with the West and wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France. What has alienated many Muslims from the democratic ideal is not their religion but Western governments’ support of autocratic rulers, such as the Iranian shahs, Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak, who have denied people basic human and democratic rights.

The 2007 Gallup poll shows that support for democratic freedoms and women’s rights is widespread in the Muslim world, and many governments are responding — albeit haltingly — to pressures for more political participation. There is, however, resistance to a wholesale adoption of the Western secular model. Many want to see God reflected more clearly in public life, just as a 2006 Gallup poll revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe that God should be the source of legislation.

Nor is sharia law the rigid system that many Westerners deplore. Muslim reformers, such as Sheikh Ali Gomaa and Tariq Ramadan, argue that it must be reviewed in the light of changing social circumstances. A fatwa is not universally binding like a papal edict; rather, it simply expresses the opinion of the mufti who issues it. Muslims can choose which fatwas they adopt and thus participate in a flexible free market of religious thought, just as Americans can choose which church they attend.

Religion may not be the cause of the world’s political problems, but we still need to understand it if we are to solve them. “Whoever took religion seriously!” exclaimed an exasperated U.S. government official after the Iranian Revolution. Had policymakers bothered to research contemporary Shiism, the United States could have avoided serious blunders during that crisis. Religion should be studied with the same academic impartiality and accuracy as the economy, politics, and social customs of a region, so that we learn how religion interacts with political tension, what is counterproductive, and how to avoid giving unnecessary offense.

And study it we’d better, for God is back. And if “he” is perceived in an idolatrous, literal-minded way, we can only expect more dogmatism, rigidity, and religiously articulated violence in the decades ahead.

Want to Know More?

Karen Armstrong has spent the past 25 years writing about the centrality of religion to the human experience. Before her most recent book, The Case for God (New York: Knopf, 2009), she wrote The Bible: A Biography (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), an account of the not entirely orthodox way that the Bible came into being.

Over the last few years, the so-called New Atheists have become increasingly vocal about the dangerous shortcomings of religion in such books as Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007).

Recently, some books have sought out a middle ground between atheism and fundamentalism. These include Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), which incorporates evolutionary psychology to explain shifts in belief over time, and Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God is Back (New York: Penguin, 2009), examining the curiously vital relationship between modernity and religion.

Religion scholar John Esposito and polling expert Dalia Mogahed argue in Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think (New York: Gallup Press, 2007), a book based on more than 50,000 interviews in Muslim countries, that Westerners have been getting Islam wrong for decades.

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion, including A History of God, Islam: A Short History, and, most recently, The Case for God.

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