Weaponized, illiberal fundamentalism disrupts secularism, often auguring anarchy or fascism
Once upon a time, formal religions won praise for teaching humanistic, moral virtues that foster peaceful, civilized communities. Defy the Seven Deadly Sins and celebrate love, compassion, justice, charity, and tolerance to neighbors, inspirational still for vital, democratic diversity. Nothing wrong with traditional guidance like “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” or the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”The boldest honor Jesus’ unique words, “turn the other cheek,” even the daunting “Love thy enemy.”
Were such transcendent virtues truly celebrated, that would make earthlings “great again.” Without religion, so moralists argue, what restrains disruptive, anti-social or criminal behavior? In a decentralized modern era, what else socializes citizens to serve fair-minded, civil peace? Lacking religious frames, ask philosophers, how does humanity confront painful questions about wickedness, suffering and death, let alone the conscious human role in an inscrutable world with an unknowable future?
Too bad Christianity, though hardly alone, has neglected teaching the better angels of our nature, per Lincoln. Au contraire, today’s triumphalist, self-ordained Christian nationalists undermine “originalist” injunctions with needless violence, bigotry, and cruelty, eschewing the civilized values that produced the human rights we enjoy. We stand at a cultural crossroad that (again) tests whether structured religion has the integrity and/or self-assurance or warning to respect the strong, necessary Constitutional line between church and state, even fair, democratic secularism that inhibits fixated or pigheaded minorities from running roughshod.
What would Jesus do?
Judging by the sinister brew of extremists church-goers plagued with know-nothing populism, linked to pro-gun and white nationalism, America is a mess, divided not just by right vs. left, urban vs. rural, or rich vs. poor. The real division lies between belligerent congregants demanding sovereignty vs. the unaffiliated, secular, legalistic majority backing certified elections, the law and the Constitution. How revealing two years later that Jan. 6’s fascist, Trumpist insurrectionists both defy repentance for bashing self-government and corrupt their indefensible insurgency as a mere protest. It’s one thing to blunder at an ill-conceived, asinine insurrection; it’s far worse when all that’s learned is, next time, vicious, chaotic rioters must bring more organization, leverage and fire-power to bear. That is regression against enlightenment norms in spades.
The world now divides between democratic secularism defending freedom (as with abortion and voting) vs. holier-than-thou oppression loaded with obsessions like dogma, infallibility, heresy, sacrilege, desecration, blasphemy, and retribution. Religious terms address imagined holiness, itself dependent on equally invisible, super-natural source or creator. Religious terrorism pressures everyone to adhere to a sect’s intangible speculations driven by obscure feelings called faith. Whether about ritual or mystical faith-alone, religion as a private devotion is not at question. What defines terrorism is when any violent cult of self-declared fanatics, abandoning reason and debate, attacks others because only their values and morality count as “good and right.” That way lies politicized, theocratic fascism.
As Richard Dawkins writes,
The human psyche has two great sicknesses: the urge to carry vendetta across generations, and the tendency to fasten group labels on people rather than see them as individuals. Abrahamic religion gives strong sanction to both—and mixes explosively with both. Only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today.
What endangers America is not hard to understand but, rife with religious anxiety, won’t go away. We now endure the horror when the aggrieved expand into legal and political commandments, merging fundamentalist minorities to enact two contrary missions: to defy majority government while co-opting enough power to trump that majority with unjust strictures. This monumental paradox – rejecting government except when it executes a sect’s partisan willfulness – troubles not the radical disrupters, falling back on the unarguable word of an inerrant, higher divinity. For fundamentalists, whether religious or racist or gun advocates, case closed. That allows extremists endless permission to obey the self-fulfilling illogic of “obeying God’s will,” which only they personally know with absolute certainty.
Weaponized, theocratic domination
That is the inevitable outcome of what happens when the faith-alone crowd (or whatever absolutist sect, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, libertarian) decides their belief system awards them full control – and violent means – so they rule supreme. In that sense, such “divinely-ordained” kings or military imperialists share the same value system – wherein the fixed, ordained end (whether sanctity, eternal life, or territorial hegemony) abandons 18th C. Enlightenment virtues (reason, justice, self-government, community health) for state-enforced theocracy. How simple to reign when all dissent is obliterated.
Thus do crusaders welcome chaos and disruption as the only way to defeat the elected (allegedly) evil status quo. Zealots don’t object to maximum state power but which side wields it. Thus do messianic true believers – who reject compromise “with the devil” – represent a cultural threat more insidious than overt terrorist violence. While anti-American terrorists practice separate incidents, purist religionists are in for the daily, long haul because they believe their “immortal soul” (whatever that means) and “eternal life” (whatever that means) are on the line, if not that dream called heaven (wherever that is).
The issue is social control, not “God-bothering”
Secularists need not be skeptics, nor vigorous non-believers. A wide range of sources explain what created existence (many invisible), whether atomic valence, electrical forces, the Big Bang, dark mass, or a humanoid deity. More relevant and testable is accepting what spawns life on earth (molecular complexity, DNA, biological imperatives or chance) without disowning religion – as long as faith, salvation and god are not distorted as empirical data. For science, nothing is absolute or supreme, thus applying skepticism to intuitions or estimates until reason applies, whether about safe vaccines, clear evolution, or the moral and intellectual fallacy that humankind should or can ever have dominion over the earth.
Let’s move past the narrow obsession with earthly cause and effect, thus the need for an “external” creator, thus a supernatural being. In our cosmos, matter and energy are not open to ultimate destruction or creation. Without fixed creation myths, absolute religious bets are off: what is, just is, and let’s abandon the reductive need for calculated, ultimate causes, a fool’s errand. When absolutes wither, so would the politicized weaponization of “faith alone” that rejects compromise or demonizes dissenters as sinful.
Are we moderns incapable of learning the obvious lessons from centuries of European religious wars that killed millions over (outdated) sectarian dogma? Better to distrust absolutes or subsequent moral oppression. As one author favoring self-reliance over inherited dogma quipped, “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!” The warning applies to any presumptuous, holier-than-thou saviors who claim to know “God’s will,” then insist they know better how all should live. Must we again relive the old lesson that religious terrorism kills? If secular freedoms do not constrain religious excess, the cancer will spread.