Is it time to accept religion as a real motive force behind violent action in the world?
“Whether we share the Greek poet’s belief that ‘sometimes it is a pleasure even to be a madman,’ or Plato’s that ‘the man in control of his senses knocks in vain on poetry’s door,’ or Aristotle’s that ‘no great genius has ever existed without a dash of lunacy’—whatever the truth, only the mind that is roused can utter something momentous that surpasses the thoughts of other men.”—Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind
Much as I love and respect Karen Armstrong, I must confess that her new book—Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014)—is really starting to get on my nerves. Why? Because religion is never taken at face value as the real motive force behind violent action in the world. It’s always something else like masculinity issues, nationalism, xenophobia, or schizophrenia.
Are some people who do horrible things in the name of religion actually doing them for nationalistic reasons? Absolutely. Are some of them actually crazy? No doubt. Are some of them working out masculinity issues? Certainly. But are we really going to say that a deep commitment to a religious vision is never the real reason why someone decides to take a shotgun to the abortion clinic? Are we really willing to say that religion—”the most enduring form of popular culture in human history”—is never more than an epiphenomenal smokescreen, which conceals more fundamental issues—issues related, of course, to the Holy Trinity of RACE, CLASS, and GENDER?
Refusing to even entertain the possibility that religious conviction might be a root cause of religious violence is profoundly intellectually dishonest. Indeed, it’s not unlike the sleazy sleight-of-hand favored by Marxists of a certain stamp: if you don’t agree with me you’ve got false consciousness. Or the equally sleazy sleight-of-hand favored by old-school Freudians: if you don’t agree with my analysis you’re in denial.
At a certain point we have to at least entertain the possibility that people mean what they say. At a certain point we have to take the religious imagination seriously. What’s more, we need to acknowledge that the mere fact that a person’s understanding of the world is clouded by psychosis (or psychedelics or masculinity issues or status anxiety or anything else) doesn’t necessarily mean that their religious insights and experiences aren’t real. Altered states of consciousness (regardless of their origin) can reveal just as much as they conceal.
I know this to be true from personal experience. I had a serious brush with psychosis when I was a teenager. During those years I also had some profoundly life-changing spiritual experiences. Were some of these visionary experiences simply delusions produced by a malfunctioning adolescent brain? Absolutely. Can they all be explained away with the primitive tools wielded by modern psychology? Absolutely not.
Although I’ve had insights when I was half crazy (or drunk or high) that were, in retrospect, complete and utter nonsense, I’ve also had—in the same head space—genuine insights into the world, other people, my self, and my relationships—insights I wouldn’t have otherwise had—insights that remained thoroughly compelling and useful and true for me “after the ecstasy” (to borrow Kornfield’s phrase). Put another way, a way that would have charmed Nietzsche (my favorite atheist): the fact that the madman hears the voice of God doesn’t mean that he’s not hearing the voice of God.
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