Nothing fuels religious extremism more than the belief that one has found the absolute moral truth. Islamic terrorism, for example, has gradually shifted from secular motives in the 1960s to religious motives today. A 2000 study by the state department that resulted in the publication Patterns of Global Terrorism, found that in 1980 there were only two out of sixty-four militant Islamic groups whose mission was religiously based. In 1995 that figure had climbed to nearly half. The figure is undoubtedly higher today. (http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/54249.pdf)
It is a type of fuel that can lead to what Clay Farris Naff, Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of Rational Solutions in Lincoln, Nebraska, cleverly calls the “neuron bomb,” after its cold-war counterpart, the “neutron bomb,” designed to kill people while leaving buildings and infrastructure in tack. A schematic of the neuron bomb looks like this:
- Arming Device: Belief that God’s enemies must be defeated or destroyed
- Concealment: Can be implanted in any human mind
- Cost: Practically nothing
- Explosive Materials: Anything at hand
- Destructive Potential: Unlimited
As Naff explains, the arming device is difficult to defuse: “Unlike the cold war stability brought on by MAD—the doctrine of mutual assured destruction—in this situation we cannot count on knowing whom to blame. We cannot negotiate treaties with them. We cannot count on their will to live. There is simply no limit to what some people will do in God’s name.”
Salman Rushdie minced no words in his analysis of the problems between India and Pakistan, two religiously-based political systems poised intermittently on the brink of nuclear holocaust:
The political discourse matters, and explains a good deal. But there’s something beneath it, something we don’t want to look in the face: namely, that in India, as elsewhere in our darkening world, religion is the poison in the blood. So India’s problem turns out to be the world’s problem. What happened in India has happened in God’s name. The problem’s name is God.
To be more accurate, India’s problem—and the world’s—is extremism in the name of God, even in the industrial and democratic West. “All faiths that come out of the biblical tradition—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have the tendency to believe that they have the exclusive truth,” writes Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “When the Taliban wiped out the Buddhist statues, that’s what they were saying. But others have said it too.” (Quoted in Kristof, N. D. 2002. “All-American Osamas,” The New York Times, June 7, A27.)
And it’s not just an Islamic problem. Listen to the words of the current Pope, who when he said them in August 2000 was Cardinal Ratzinger: “With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by Him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity. This truth of faith … rules out, in a radical way…the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another.’” (Quoted in Kristof, cited above.)
Yes, some religions are better than others, and some are worse. How can we tell the difference? Here’s a test: if I am not a member of your religion, or if I don’t believe in your God—indeed if I don’t belong to any religion or believe in any gods—will my liberties or my life be taken away from me? If your answer is “no,” then your religion is better than any religion who encourages or insists that it’s members deprive nonbelievers of life or liberty.
Better according to what standard? Is there a moral standard that stands above all the world’s religions that is based on some transcendent source? There is. And it isn’t supernatural.