The Fragile Beliefs of Terrorists

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (Wikimedia Commons)
Triumph of Faith over Idolatry by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (Wikimedia Commons)

Since 9/11, it has been conventional wisdom among many on the left, and especially among the New Atheists, that religious conviction is bad, bad news. The logic is pretty straightforward: it takes a very high degree of religious conviction to kill yourself in the name of God. You have to really, really believe. Meanwhile, folks who don’t believe are unlikely to do anything extreme. So we’d all be a lot safer and more comfortable if religious folks would just sort of calm down.

The conventional response from religious folks is that, well: yeah, sometimes great faith makes people do acts of great evil. But it also makes people do acts of great heroism, right? Mother Theresa, right? This is a qualified defense at best. It says, in effect, that there really is a link between religious faith and extreme actions. It doesn’t actually show that these great acts of evil an good balance out, and there really isn’t any good reason to suspect that they should. What’s the exchange rate between an extremist terrorist with a nuclear weapon and an extremist nun with a desire to help poor people in Calcutta?

But maybe the central premise needs to be reconsidered. Maybe it’s not great faith that leads terrorists into extremism. Thus, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in an article for the New Statesman:

It effectively may appear that the split between the permissive First World and the fundamentalist reaction to it runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called “passive” and “active” nihilism? We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction. William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” seems perfectly to render our present predicament: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This is an excellent description of the current split between anemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists. “The best” are no longer able fully to engage, while “the worst” engage in racist, religious, sexist fanaticism.

However, do the terrorist fundamentalists really fit this description? What they obviously lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the US: the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation.

This is an important new way at looking at the intersection between faith and social stability. (Hat tip to Miles Kimball, who cited the article in his own blog post.)