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Op-Ed: By Vel Nirtist March 2005

Some three and a half centuries ago, when England was in the throes of the civil war and was about to try and execute king Charles I, John Milton bitterly complained that opponents of this step were captives to a double tyranny, of custom from without, and blind affections within, rather than being governed by reason. Whether one agrees with his political views or not, Milton was right in his assessment of the grip of the irrational on our thinking.

By definition, the process of thinking requires one to have an open mind, so that all possible options are considered. Putting a taboo on an idea because it encroaches on a custom or belief that is held dear will doom a solution to a problem: reality cares nothing for human views of propriety.

It was so in Miltons times, when astronomy was much discussed by the learned, and many theories were propounded to explain certain anomalies in the movement of the planets. A solution was urgently needed but not at any cost. Earth had to remain in the center of the Universe, with all other heavenly bodies moving around it. Any other setup would be a body blow to the deeply seated notion of the centrality of human race in the grand schema of things, and so it made perfect sense for the Inquisition to silence Galileo. It is so in our own time too: there are some who would fight the spread of AIDS without so much as mentioning the word "sex" manifestation of delicate feelings that, one suspects, will cause many lives to be lost.

And today, we have to deal with another huge challenge terrorism and religious violence.

Now, religious violence has two components to it: violence, which is something we abhor and condemn with the full power of righteous indignation and, well, religion. Here we are treading on much thinner ice, because religion is such a core part of our identity and culture that it hurts deeply to hear it criticized. In analyzing religious violence, we have a task on our hands that is just as delicate as explaining the movement of the planets while keeping the Earth in the center. We need religious violence explained in a way that leaves religion itself unsullied.

Luckily, nothing can be simpler. Religion at fault? Never! Terrorism results not from religion, but from perverting it.

This is a wonderful solution. Too bad it is sadly inadequate at explaining the facts.

Fact number one: Osama and his ilk, having been told by the West that they perverted Islam on September 11, 2001, should have immediately realized how wrong they were. But far from repenting and mending their ways, they keep trying to violently advance their agenda. Whom are we kidding? Our perverted Islam is their unabashed True Faith.

Fact number two: Osama was not the only one to have engaged in violent behavior to defend his religious views. The list of others is long and illustrious, and includes no lesser figures than Moses (3,000 Jews killed on his order for worshipping the golden calf); St Augustine (ordered Nubians Christians who advocated adult baptism flogged into submission); Martin Luther (thousands of witches burned at the stake); John Calvin (had numerous heretics burned). Moses, St Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin must all have perverted religion, according to such logic. How many Jews, Catholics and Protestants agree?

Well, maybe something altogether different from perversion of religion is going on here. Perhaps, if we are to be governed by reason, we can indeed understand what actually causes religious violence. But to do so, we need to break a major cultural taboo, and be willing to seriously consider the real possibility that religion itself the notion that a particular set of views represents Gods will and not perversion of religion is causing violence. Hopefully, we will find the inner strength to overcome the double tyranny of custom and blind affections. It had been done before. The Earth was found to be moving, after all.

Vel Nirtist is the author of The Pitfall of Truth: Holy War, its Rationale and Folly.

Publisher's note: We agree that no stones should be left unturned in searching for causes of violence. However, our position is that it is Extremism arising from the Authoritarian Personality that perverts religion as well as other endeavors of human kind. Monotheisms are authoritarian by nature and are thus particularly vulnerable to perversion. It could also be that Moses and descents were extremists who in effect established monotheism to suit their views or used it later to extend their own power.


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