True believers and the violence of faith

Bad Faith

December 21, 2007

Every year I attend the meeting of the American Religious Studies Association, at which hundreds of publishers display their latest wares. Among the religious, academic, and trade publishers, one stands out: Prometheus Books, an avowedly atheistic publisher.

While Prometheus's books conform to no fixed creed, almost invariably they evince a delightfully irreverent, 18th-century view of religion. Religious beliefs stem from ignorance, are conspicuously false or preposterous, stand at odds with science and history, cause harm rather than good, and should be abandoned. Religious pronouncements are to be taken literally and straightforwardly. No irony, paradox or symbolism is to be sought.

Readers of a postmodern bent will be dismayed by the resolutely modernist stance assumed by Prometheus. Above all, those seeking praise for religion, justification for religion or an apology for religion should look elsewhere.

Bad Faith is wholly (not "holy") representative of the Prometheus list. Written by, presumably, a social psychologist, who is the author of the acclaimed work Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror, this book argues that Islam is different from either Christianity or Judaism. Both Christianity and Judaism were once equally fanatical advocates of violence, but they have been transformed into model citizens of the enlightened, secular West.

Islam has enjoyed no comparable enlightenment. The fault lies less with the religion than with the feudal, oppressive, anti-democratic societies in which most, although not all, Muslims live.

Just as Neil Kressel credits the modern, democratic West with the reformation of Christianity and Judaism, so he blames Middle Eastern and other societies for the perpetuation of an intolerant Islam. Because for him all three religions, if not all religions, began as intolerant, tolerance must be imported from seculardom.

Kressel uses conventional, almost commonsense psychology to explain the appeal of violence to Islam. Muslims have long felt a collective inferiority complex toward the West. The success of European civilisation has proved shocking: "Far from achieving the ordained and expected world domination, Muslims were no longer calling the shots on their own turf. By the 19th century, it was clear to most Muslims that the West had triumphed over the Islamic world."

Because of its location in the Middle East, Israel, so conspicuously successful by modern standards, is the epitome of the triumph of the West over the East. That all the armies of the Arab world have repeatedly failed to defeat a tiny nation in its midst has exacerbated the Muslim sense of inferiority.

Kressel combines commonplace notions of collective inferiority with equally commonplace notions of individual vulnerability. He never claims that all Muslims are dangerous, but rather that Muslims of certain personality types are predisposed to act violently on behalf of their religion. Hence the title of his chapter "Vulnerable minds and sick societies".

Kressel's analysis is akin to that of the famous post-Second World War book by members of the Frankfurt School, The Authoritarian Personality. Alas, he seems to be unaware of the work.

Wary of being charged with anti-Muslim prejudice, Kressel discusses in detail the cases of equally fanatical modern-day Christians and Jews, notably those who have killed in the name of foetuses and of Zionism. The title of this chapter is "Killers in every faith".

But he notes that these killings were done by solitary fanatics and were condemned both by Christians who were also opposed to abortion and by Jews who were equally committed to Zionism. He contrasts these individual acts to the collective violence advocated by many Muslim leaders and many Muslim governments.

Kressel castigates apologists for Muslim violence. He rejects those ecumenically minded Westerners who either deny or downplay Muslim violence, and he scorns attempts to put violence in Islam on a par with violence in other religions.

In Kressel's view, the free, secular West has the right to protect itself from militant Islam, and he proposes practical policies for keeping the West safe from militant Islam.

For Kressel, as for his publisher, the real enemy is religion itself, which even when peaceful is still objectionable. If the author were better educated, he would know that "bad faith" is the term that Sartre, equally anti-religious, coined not just for fanatical religion but for religion per se.

Robert A. Segal is professor of religious studies, Aberdeen University.

Bad Faith: The Danger of Religious Extremism

Author - Neil J. Kressel
Publisher - Prometheus Books
Pages - 3
Price - £26.00
ISBN - 9781591023030

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