The Dark Side of Religion
When things don’t make sense—and as ‘rational’ humans we need them too—we make them make sense. Our mental health depends on it. When reason doesn’t provide answers we invite faith to fill the void. This is, at a cognitive level, one of the principal functions of religion. We accept what our theistic traditions offer to reconcile knowns and unknowns and justify our response to a complex world that too often defies reason.
In David Brooks’ column in the New York Times (10 November 2009) titled “The Rush to Therapy” he points out “The stories we select help us … to interpret the world. They guide us to pay attention to certain things and ignore others. The most important power we have is to select the lens through which we see reality.” Mr. Brooks gets that part right, then he chooses the wrong lens—of Judeo-Christian American exceptionalism—through which he interprets the case of Army Major Nidal Hasan, the shooter at Fort Hood, Texas.
Army Major Nidal Hasan, is an American Muslim and, undoubtedly, a murderer. He suffered demons we may never fully understand. Islamic extremists who wage violence throughout the world may have radicalized him. While we have much more to learn about his story, those with their own agenda or point of view have preemptively written it. Hasan and his victims have become fodder for our relentless pursuit of a truth that fits our preferred narrative, which serves our innocence while reconciling dissonance to keep us sane. In his column, Brooks writes his version while criticizing those who wait to know more.
Mr. Brooks proceeds by outlining the danger of “malevolent narrative” that has “…emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world … that sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other.” He then offers criticism of those of us who chose restraint over judgment in the case of Major Hasan, producing a “shroud of political correctness [that] settled the conversation” and characterizes it as “patronizing” and a “willful flight from reality.” He claims evidence that proves Hasan “chose the extremist War on Islam narrative that so often leads to murderous results.” In so doing, Brooks reveals his lens of Judeo-Christian American exceptionalism.
Mr. Brooks’ narrative about Islam waging war on Christianity and Judaism could easily be exchanged word-for-word by a columnist at al-Jazeera to criticize moderate Muslims who exercise restraint—crafting an inverse narrative of Christianity and Judaism’s war on Islam. But Brooks, who is blinded by his lens of exceptionalism, totally, and uncharacteristically, misses this. He could have led us forward to a higher level of understanding—pointing to the dangers inherent in all religions that allow us to not only make sense of the world, but which also justify violence, oppression, and murder.
All religions claim they are religions of peace. Few meet the standard. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not among the few. As long as we believe our particular religious traditions are exceptional—that rise above all others—we will forever remain in the same trap as Brooks, feeling better in the moment and forever in danger.