"Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st century as political ideology was to the 20th century." -- Tony Blair
Mumbai. 9/11. Chechnya. Sectarian violence in Iraq. Somalia. Afghanistan. Nigeria.
The man with the most military power in the history of the world is reported to have said, "I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did, and then God would tell me, 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq ... ' And I did."
It was called a Crusade.
These are the defining events of the new century.
After a brief, semiretirement of a few hundred years, religion has returned as the No. 1 cause of violence, war and death.
So the fundamental national security questions of our time have to be about faith.
What is it about faith that makes people eager to commit suicide so long as it enables them to commit mass murder while they're at it?
What is it about faith that makes world leaders like George Bush and Tony Blair -- with armies, bombers, missiles, artillery and navies -- ignore good advice, abandon good sense and lead their countries to two of the stupidest wars in history? And while they're at it, to radically change the moral positions that their countries adopted just 60 years ago and commit what were then called war crimes: initiating a war of aggression, torture and the failure to provide for the populations of the countries they occupied?
What is it about faith that made it suddenly re-emerge as the driving force in American politics and in the politics of the Islamic countries?
It seems self-evident that God should have become our No. 1 area of study during the last few years. That the government, universities and foundations should have all rushed forward with funds to create programs and recruit students to find out what this God thing is.
The war in Iraq ought to have taught us here in the West two lessons.
We are very, very good at invading countries and smashing their armies, even better than we thought we were. But that doesn't stop suicide bombers. It only encourages them.
The nature of the people who attacked us, and the results of our response to them, make it obvious that understanding fanatical faith is at least as important as developing a reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle, more useful than developing new tactical nuclear weapons. And if we can find a way to reach or to undermine the faith of fanatics, it will be far more economical than invading a series of foreign countries.
But the opposite has happened: billions for bombs! Not a penny for thought! A smart bomb remains as dumb as a brick if the people firing it don't know who to hit or the right reasons to hit them.
God and religion should have become important to us, we, the just plain people. Whether or not our leaders are people of "faith," we really need them to balance their faith with good sense, so they make better decisions.
A serious conversation about faith and how it works should have become one of the leading topics of our national conversation, in the press, on television, in books and in academia, instead of a public parade of politicians on television competing to prove how much faith each of them has.
God, religion, faith, spirituality -- whichever face of the prism we are looking at -- runs like a vertical pillar through all the levels of our lives. Our international policies are fixed largely around this war on terror. Our most volatile domestic political issues -- regulating our sex lives, abortion, birth control, homosexuality, separation of church and state -- are rooted in our religious views. Our social circles, our family structures, our individual lives, our world views, how we live and die, our health and happiness -- are organized around our spiritual views, or lack thereof.
All this, without a serious attempt to find out what religion really is. That's why we need to examine God, faith and religion.
This is the first in a series of essays. Others will include:
- Looking at God: Belief, Agnosticism, Atheism
- Belief & False Beliefs
- Why We Believe in God
- Why We Believe Enough to Kill & Die
- What is Spirituality?
- Morality: What Is It? Where Does It Come From? What Is Its Relation to Religion
- The Competition Between Monotheisms, Polytheism and Nontheistic Societies
A personal note: I recently wrote a novel, Salvation Boulevard, a mystery-thriller about religion. Narrative fiction has it's own demands. It can only tolerate as much theory and philosophy as moves the story. It was always my intention to use the novel as a way to open the dialogue and explore it further in formats like this.