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The Day Religion Died

by Guy Harrison

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 4.

Guy HarrisonAs a journalist I have an obligation to ask strangers uncomfortable questions. I interviewed a firefighter at Ground Zero shortly after the September 11 attacks and asked the sad-eyed man how it felt to lose so many friends. I interviewed a woman who had watched from her office window as the first jet vanished into the face of the North Tower. I asked her how it felt to witness the deaths of thousands.

Now, two years after the September 11 attacks, I ask the entire world an uncomfortable question: How has almost everyone missed the obvious fact that religion was the key ingredient to the madness of September 11? Bin Laden’s dreams begin and end with religion. Muslim terrorists, just like the Christian terrorists who blow up health clinics and shoot doctors, draw both their purpose and courage directly from a warped view of reality commonly known as religion.

In my mind at least, the whole gods industry was dealt a fatal blow that terrible Tuesday in America. Prior to the disintegration of 3,000 innocents, I had viewed religion as humankind’s colorful and silly side, something not necessarily to be fought but rather to be studied and ultimately accepted as part of the human experience. This is not to suggest that I thought of religions as anything other than lazy answers to human hopes and fears. I had long ago concluded that believing in gods is irrational nonsense. I knew that religion drained money, energy, and brainpower from society. I also understood that supernatural beliefs had inspired death and suffering throughout history. Still, I excused religion as a phase or personality quirk that our young species would, I hoped, outgrow in another thousand years or so. September 11 changed all that.

No longer am I so forgiving and so patient, not after seeing the spiritual chicken come home to roost that autumn morning. I have recalibrated my tolerance for humanity’s most intolerant diversion. For me, the World Trade Center crime put real flesh and blood on all of those previously distant historical and journalistic tales of slashed throats, bombings, and live burnings inflicted upon people in the name of gods.

My post-9/11 readings have included the popular commentaries of Thomas L. Friedman (New York Times) and Victor Davis Hanson (National Review). I have found them both to be sensible and informative. Friedman is well-connected to the Middle East and does not hesitate to scold Arabs, Jews, and even Christian presidents as he draws lines between the dots of Holy Land violence and American aspirations. Hanson, a military historian with a deep knowledge of ancient Greece, dissects the terrorism challenge so well that even the most committed peace-loving liberal is likely to find his steel-bayonet logic difficult to reject. Both of these talented writers have failed by omission, however, in their attempts to make sense of and offer solutions to the September 11 attacks. Neither has aimed their piercing analysis at the role and responsibility of religion in general. At most, they write about unacceptable “extremism” and “fundamentalism,” as if these things are not the inevitable products of “acceptable” religion. Friedman will never produce an answer to the madness of the Middle East in a 740-word column until he confronts the madness of giving allegiance to imaginary gods. A belief system that includes a promise of life after death as well as the guiding hand of an invisible master who can be quoted at will by anyone is guaranteed trouble. Some portion of the deluded will always behave in dangerous, destructive, and violent ways. History proves this claim. Friedman, for all his brilliance, misses the core problem. The Middle East will never be quiet so long as its inhabitants continue to take their religions seriously.

As for Hanson, the man who so comfortably embraces military solutions to terrorism can’t seem to pull the trigger when it comes to religion. It will never be enough for the American descendants of Hoplite phalanxes to smash pockets of Taliban or Al Qaeda goons; not when the ultimate source of their ignorance and evil is left unchallenged. Sure, it is impressive when a dusty Special Forces operative paints a target with his hand-held laser and calls down precision death from a gleaming jet above. But the sad reality is that the assembly line of religious lunacy can keep pace with the U.S. military. The United States must continue to produce the most sophisticated weapons in history to stay on top of this fight. Religious terrorists, however, need only a steady supply of idiots to keep the fight going. For every dumb terrorist vaporized by a smart bomb, at that same moment there are a hundred children learning that their god needs them to fight. Hanson is convincing about the need to physically annihilate terrorism with brute force. Why, however, is he apparently unconvinced that the world would be safer if religions were mentally annihilated with brute reason? They are, after all, the foundation of religious violence. If we want this form of terrorism to fade away then we must start dimming the lights on its source.

All of this may be distasteful to peaceful believers, but that’s OK. Truth often is. And the relevant truth here is that religions, even the seemingly benign versions that warm so many souls around the world, are responsible for producing hell on Earth for far too many people. Despite all the chatter about love, religion encourages and supports evil. It always has. It always will.

Since September 11, I can no longer giggle when the president says that a god guides him. His words are just too similar to the words of faith-based terrorists. I can’t laugh at the fraudulent faith healers on television as I once did, for their gullible victims remind me of those Arab crowds who cheered when the towers fell. I also find it increasingly difficult to tolerate those around me who push religion as a superior source of morality, for I now know firsthand that the gods are bloodthirsty. I am forever soured on religion because of September 11. As a decent human being I can feel no other way. I would be immoral to ever again excuse it as a cute diversion to the drudgery of daily life. Yes, religion, with its diverse rituals, music, art, and emotional power, can be a wonderful expression of humanity. But no beauty is worth those 3,000 innocents killed in New York City, Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania field. Nor is it worth the countless millions of lives it had stolen before that day. For me, religion has moved from the realm of silly to evil. For now I know that it is the madness that haunts us, just as it is the beast that hunts us.

Guy Harrison is an American journalist living in the Caribbean. He is a past winner of the Commonwealth Media Award for Excellence in Journalism.

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