Karl Marx famously observed that religion was the opiate of the masses, meaning that it provided an escape from the harsh realities of life. This may well be true, but looking at the conflicts arising in the Middle East these days, I’m inclined to observe that religion is the amphetamine of the masses.
Now, some will suggest that the conflicts between Arabs, Christians and Jews in Palestine/Israel, or between or among Islamists (Sunni and Shi’a) are simply proxy struggles for what is at base political conflict. I think this gets things wrong, and does a disservice to religion, as well as politics.
There may well be cynical non-believers who make use of the religions conflicts of our time to their own political ends. However, there are also true believers for whom the religious issues are the source and end of the conflict. A look at European history will show that this is not a new phenomenon. Look back to the European conflicts of the 15th through the 17th century — focus just on England if that makes it easier — and you will see people killing each other over things like vernacular liturgy and the theology of the Eucharist. There is nothing new about beheading or burning people over religious differences. As I said in an earlier post, if you want to understand the Muslim present, look to the Christian past.
It is also no use trying to play one Muslim off against another — or to accept with an easy nod the soothing reassurances of the “good Muslims” that the Islamists are in error and do not truly represent Islam. Who says? Council after council anathematized those it deemed “heretics”; the Pope said the same thing about Elizabeth I; American Baptists distance themselves from the folks in Westboro; the Global South Anglicans will condemn Episcopalians as apostates. These divisions of opinion do not mark the boundary between true and false religion — or if they do, who is to decide which side is right? One chooses one’s side based one’s own understanding of what is right and just and true — but so do they all, excepting the odd occasional cynic who might just be doing it all for political gain; and I think every side may have one or more such game-players.
So I hate to be the bearer of bad news to those who think that “good” religion will solve the problems of the current world crisis. Religion isn’t the solution; it is the problem. Christians trying to be sweet and reasonable by saying to Jews and Muslims, “We all worship the same God” is really a bit condescending, and ultimately false, since only some nominal Christians are willing to soft-pedal the orthodox notion that Jesus is God — so not really quite the same as the God of Judaism or Islam, at least from their point of view.
However, we nor they need not alter beliefs in order to work towards a pluralistic world in which people resolve not to kill each other over religious differences. What is needed is something like the Elizabethan settlement — which derives not so much from an act of will or resolve to peace as from a war-weariness in which all but the most zealous finally recognize that the continued fighting is getting them nowhere fast, and it is time to stop mainlining the speed of religion. Christianity more or less reached this detente a few centuries ago; we can only hope that Islam doesn’t take as long to reach its stasis point.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG