When nineteen jihadist hijackers slammed two airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and another into the Pentagon ten years ago, they saw themselves as heroes of an apocalyptic holy war. For a moment, it seemed that they had instead given new life to secular modernity.
During the decades preceding 9/11, religion of an intense variety made a surprising comeback. Pentecostalism blazed through South America, an exotic stew of indigenous Christianities bubbled up in Africa, Chinese churches grew at an astonishing rate, Evangelicals had political clout in the U.S., Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise. As the Economist’s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge put it in the title of their 2009 book, “God is back.”
Some found the news of God’s return alarming and after 9/11 they said so, loudly and repeatedly. Days after the attacks, Richard Dawkins wrote in The Guardian, “To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.”
Stateside, Sam Harris interrupted his studies to write The End of Faith, which lumps jihadism with the Christian political theology of Antonin Scalia. “We should not be misled” by the apparent benignity of Western religion, Harris warned. The influence of religious ideas on the U.S. government “presents a grave danger to everyone.” For Christopher Hitchens, September 11 proved that the “poison” of religion “was beginning to reassert its challenge to civil society.” New Atheism rose from the ashes of the WTC. “Yes, God is back, and look where He got us!”
Scholars of religion got well into the fray. Religious violence was already a subject of scholarly interest, but after 2001 it became an academic cottage industry across a variety of disciplines: Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil (2002), Charles Selengut’s Sacred Fury (2004), M. J. Akbar’s The Shade of Swords (2002), J. H. Ellens’ four-volume collection of essays on The Destructive Power of Religion (2004), Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s Is Religion Killing Us? (2005), and on and on.
In the wake of 9/11, Mark Juergensmeyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a new edition of his 2000 Terror in the Mind of God: The Rise of Religious Violence. 9/11 became an important illustration of his central thesis. Religious violence is “performance violence,” “deliberately intense and vivid,” “meant purposely to elicit anger.” Non-holy violence has pragmatic or strategic ends in view, but religious violence aims at symbolic targets, which are “intended to illustrate or refer to something beyond [the] immediate target.” Religious violence is “symbol, ritual, or sacred drama.”
A horror spectacle, the attacks of September 11 offer “dramatic illustrations of this theatrical display of violence.” Theater was the point. Though thousands died, “the attacks on the World trade Center did not provide any immediate political benefits to those who caused them. Although the financial costs of the September 11, 2001 attacks were staggering, there is no evidence that Osama bin Laden and other members of the al Qaeda network launched their attacks solely to cripple the U.S. economy.” The attacks have “an internal logic,” but they do not qualify as “strategic”: “These creations of terror are done not to achieve a strategic goal but to make a symbolic statement.”
In a piece for the New Humanist, Juergensmeyer suggests religious conflicts around the world are “skirmishes in a new Cold War between religious politics and the secular state,” acts of resistance to globalization which aims to expand “secular values around the world.” What hope he sees lies in a secular global order: “Until there is a surer sense of citizenship in a global order, religious visions of moral order will continue to appear an attractive, even at some level a rational, solution to the problems of identity and belonging in a global world.”
Post-9/11 popular and academic analyses make the same assumption: Terror is bad, holy terror is far worse. Precisely what makes terror holy, though, has proven difficult to pinpoint. In his devastating demolition of The Myth of Religious Violence, William T. Cavanaugh points out that Juergensmeyer’s distinction of symbolic and strategic violence evaporates when Juergensmeyer himself admits that “power is largely a matter of perception.” The religion/non-religious distinction crumbles right along with it, as Juergensmeyer also half-admits: One can “state flatly . . . that secular nationalism is ‘a religion.’” If this is true, what is left to distinguish holy from profane terror? Juergensmeyer circles dizzily between his claim that religion gives violence symbolic power and his implied criterion, “if it’s symbolic, it must be religious.”
More generally, Cavanaugh argues that most analyses of religious violence fail because they understand religion as a “transhistorical” and “transcultural” feature of human life, neatly distinguishable from “secular” concerns. In reality, religion has no such “essence.” Most scholars adopt a very recent, very Western conception of religion embedded in a very recent, very Western configuration of power. What counts as religion “depends on what practices are being authorized” and which are being marginalized. The myth that religion promotes violence is a weapon for defending the battlements of “secular” politics. That is precisely how secular pundits and scholars deploy it.
Others learned a more lasting lesson from 9/11. Tony Blair seized the opportunity to establish the Tony Blair Foundation “to promote respect and understanding between the major religions.” Without attention to religion, politicians are hamstrung in today’s world. “We in the West tend to see people of religious faith as people to be pushed to one side,” Blair said earlier this year. “That quite aggressive secularism you see in the West does not understand what is happening in the rest of the world.” Blair wants to see religious passion harnessed to “make globalization work,” but he resists secularists’ efforts to use fears of holy terror to bludgeon believers back into their hovels.
Ten years on, all this is now obvious. Resurgent secularism is a blip on the screen, New Atheism a rearguard action in a losing battle. The ferment among Muslims and Christians continues apace, and in some places it will again turn tragically violent. We have no choice but to deal with it. The message of 9/11 was always this: The gods are still back, and they are here to stay.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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