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Sunday, February 7, 2016

9/11 challenges religious faith

The attack by Islamic terrorists on the World Trade Center and the world-wide atrocities that have since followed in the name of Islam have affected religious belief in America.  While the terrorists' professed goal is to horrify people into converting to Islam, the effect has been to make people question and distrust all religions.

During the days following 9/11, most Americans, me included, were astounded that anyone could go on a suicide mission to kill thousands of innocent people in the name of God.  On some internet media in which I participate,  veterans speculated on what would happen if some military  leader asked G.I. troops to volunteer for suicide missions.  It was agreed that the officer would receive an insubordinate invitation to fornicate with himself.    To our culture, it seemed preposterous.  Fifteen years ago, it was near impossible to fathom that people would give up their own lives to commit the atrocity of mass murder of innocent people.  In the intervening time, the incidents of radical Islamic terror and the mass shootings in our own culture have become commonplace.  We may be puzzled at the psychology behind such acts, but we now understand that there are large numbers of people susceptible to it. 

The Muslim faith with its doctrine of jihad is a vector for indiscriminate terrorism that infects the susceptible minds.  The blanket accusations that suggest all Muslims must be terrorists because some terrorists are Muslim is, of course, an egregiously stupid logical fallacy,  a hasty and faulty generalization.  In response to it, many people who know a bit about history have pointed out that many religions have committed mass atrocities in the name of their gods,  including Christianity.  The inquisitions and the American Puritan's genocidal war against the native American "heathens" are examples often cited.  The moral and intellectual bankruptcy of jihadists who commit terrorist attacks strikes thinking people as an absurd and demented evil, but it prompts them to examine such acts in the history of their own religions and cultures.  And they find that people in their own traditions have been as mentally gullible as the jihadist terrorists and have descended into that mindless and deadly rage that results in the commission of atrocities.  

The result of this examination of the role religion has played  in history is that educated, informed people are likely to question the dogmas that make up much theology and meet them with critical skepticism.  This questioning is a factor that has produced a sharp decrease in membership in the Christian church.  A Pew Research Center study shows that the number of people in America who call themselves Christian has dropped almost 8 percent in 7 years while the numbers of those who are unaffiliated or affiliate with other religions have grown.  The study does not probe the reasons people change their faith, which are complicated, but in my associations with other people and browsing through available literature on the subject of faith and religious belief,  I find that 9/11 and terrorism is often a point of discussion in the matter of religious belief.  Radical Islamic terrorism is such a moral outrage that it has forced sentient people to examine the overall role of religion in the history of atrocities.  

The current situation regarding religious belief recalls the term "religionless Christianity" raised by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in response to Nazification of the German evangelical churches during the Holocaust.  I became acquainted with the concept as undergraduate in the 1950s.  I attended a denominational college in my home community which shared its campus with a seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology, which has since moved to the University of Chicago campus.  Religion courses and chapel attendance were required.  The religion courses I took,  however, were scholarly rather than indoctrinating in approach.  Courses in the Life and Literature of the Old Testament and New Testament examined the process and the historical context in which the Bible was written.  Those courses did not gloss over the conflicts and discrepancies in the Bibe, and confronted the conflicting values presented in the Old Testament and the New Law expressed by Christ in the New Testament.  My senior-level course in religion was the Philosophy of Religion, a comparative course in religions of the world and Christian theology.  The Bible was regarded as a record of the development of Christian spirituality, as the studies emphasized that the New Law professed by Christ was a severe departure from the angry strife recorded in the Old Testament.  As one theologian put it, the Bible is not a book of incantations and curses against humankind, but a vehicle that advances and explains peace on earth and good will toward all people.  

There were still World War II veterans on campus on the G.I Bill at that time, and they lent an illuminating perspective from the battle fields to the questions of how religion and church deal with assaults on humankind.  In the examination of the Christian church's response to the Holocaust, Bonhoeffer was a key figure.  He participated in a plot to eliminate Hitler,  about which there was vigorous arguments among the theologians.  Those arguments were raised in the chapel convocations, and students carried them on over their coffee sessions in the student union.  The role of churches and religion in the affairs of humankind were talked over with a very critical sense of the roles religion played in the history of human atrocities. 

At that time, which was the McCarthy era,  Arthur Miller's play The Crucible was playing on Broadway.  Although it was a rendering of the Salem witch trials, it dealt primarily with the perversion of the human spirit and the resulting atrocities under the guise of religious belief. (A signal moment in American history and literature is when Samuel Sewall,  a judge in the Salem witch trials,  stood before the congregation of his church and recanted his role in the trials.)   While the political world was going about its business of defaming people and destroying lives,  the intellectual world was looking at the ways humanity was striving to rise above the human propensities for oppression and violence.  

While there is much discussion in theological circles about whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical figure or a myth created out of aspirations of the human spirit to raise above the society of the wolf pack and the chicken flock, the case is made that the figure of Christ informed the images of freedom, equality, and justice that over threw the feudal world.  He carried forth the mission accounted in the book of Isaiah, which we sturdied in that college course Old Testament Life and Literature:

Is this not the fast that I choose to loose the bonds of injustice, to to undo the thongs of the yoke,  to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless into your house,;  when you see the naked cover them, and not hide yourself from your own kin?  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly...
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger,  the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,  then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday. [Isaiah 58:  6-8, 9-10  NRSV]

Many people have renounced the church,  as Bonhoeffer did when he responded to part it played or did  not not play in American segregation and in the Holocaust.  The ideas of freedom, equality, and justice were conveyed in the Bible because it reported on the aspirations of some humans who envisioned a humanity that rose above the conditions of oppression, malicious discriminations, and those things that motivate violent maiming and death among contending humans.  

I have been a student and appreciator of the role of churches in shaping our culture and society.  Churches are integral and sometimes inspiring in the history of American development, and they were essential in forming the rural communities of South Dakota.  But they also have their history as vectors of malice.  Although still a nominal member of a church,  I have not attended in twelve years, aside from the many funerals and weddings a person of my age has occasion to attend.   The reasons are complicated.  My children were brought up the church, two were confirmed,  one refused to go after a time.  Of the two who were confirmed,  I don't think they have entered a church for the purposes of worship since their confirmations.  The reasons as I see it is that church became an extension of the social factions and mean-girl discriminations that they encountered in school.   And my spouse and I stopped attending after she lost a job.  She was a staff member for Sen. Tom Dsschle, and when he lost the election in 2004, some members of the congregation exhibited a gloating and snarky attitude   We didn't need to go to church to encounter the kind of mean and petty malice we could find in any lowlife tavern in town.  So, I went from a member of the board of deacons and adult-class lecturer to a non-participant.  I joined the throng of the unaffiliated who find the church irrelevant to any higher aspirations we may have.

The jihad against America and the western world has certainly raised my consciousness of the failings and deadly hypocrisies in organized religion.  We condemn the perversions of the Muslim faith that motivate terrorists, but we pay little attention to the way our own religions try to re-impose the yokes of oppression and rejection on groups of people and to agitate for hatred and the violence it inspires.  

Those perversions of faith have been professed by the Republican debates and in the statements of most of the candidates who vie to impose their particular brands of oppression and hatred on segments of the people of America.  

If our country has a future,  it is in the "religionless" Christians and "patriotic less" citizens who still aspire to freedom, equality, and justice  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States