On Sept. 11, 2001, one of the witnesses beholding the stricken towers was a priest later interviewed on the PBS documentary "Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero." With simple eloquence, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete remembered, "From the first moment I looked into that horror on September 11, into that fireball, that explosion of horror, I knew it, I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion; I recognize religion.... The same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction. When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I was not in the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew I recognized." (1)
These stunning words mark a new turn in American consciousness. While previously the public "knew about" acts of terrorism, albeit only through newscasts, now that bright September morning brought a horrifying new intimation. Our shock came not only from the immensity of the blow and its theatricality, but from the frightening thought that such violence somehow was linked to piety. "I recognize religion...."
Of course our childhood history books had taught us about early religious atrocities and crusading warriors driven by piety. But most Americans supposed these to be anomalies, over and done with. We thought we now lived in "normal times"--normal, that is, for white, middle-class suburbanites. So "religion" was reckoned to be warm and cuddly, an analgesic at hand to ease today's headaches, something like "sweetness and light" to assure anxious minds that somehow all is well. How could we even imagine that, behind the dust and roar of collapsing buildings, one might "recognize religion"?
Suddenly explanations were called for, as the public agonized, struggling to digest the enormity of these events. In our modern world, how did religion and mass violence ever manage to become entwined? Several recent books by religious scholars have responded, so let us begin by surveying their suggestions.
Charles Kimball (2), in When Religion Becomes Evil, asks if religion itself is the source of terrorism. As an ecumenist with wide experience in major faiths throughout the Middle East, his conclusion is No. It is the religious quest, indeed, that makes us human. But the danger arises when authentic religion is corrupted by fringe extremists. To signal this danger he lists five warning signs: absolute truth claims, blind obedience to charismatic leaders, fixating upon a utopian age gained by human action, believing that the end justifies any means to attain it, and declaring holy wars that are violent instead of channeled into struggles for justice and self-discipline. Each of these traits is a religious aberration. But, Kimball insists, at their best all the world's religions are far from pathological, but are paths to human fulfillment and harmony.
A second work is by Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God. (3) Masterfully she analyzes centuries of pious militancy by surveying ways that numbers of Jews, Muslims, and Western Christians have countered the erosions of modernity. Fundamentalisms arose as understandable reactions by a premodern society to the dizzying upheaval thrust upon it. They are, she writes,
embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response
to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with
enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to
religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a
conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic
war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation,
and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a
selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the
past. To avoid contamination, they often withdraw from mainstream
society to create a counterculture; yet fundamentalists are not
impractical dreamers. …