Religion has shown itself capable of producing beauty, comfort, enlightenment, healing acts, generosity, compassion, mercy, justice and love.
So the task of people who take religion seriously -- and even of those who don't -- is to recognize when and how religious ideas can be dangerous and then to work to make sure they aren't used in destructive ways. The last chapter of my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, is devoted to exploring ways that we can stand against extremism rooted in religious ideas that are being misused. And I commend the book to you.
But I also commend a new book on the subject of religious ideas recently given to me by a friend. It's Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, by Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva.
She maintains that "all religious ideas are potentially dangerous" and that "the same convictions that inspire compassion, commitment and inclusivity can justify brutality, apathy and intolerance."
She's right, of course, but the question is how, once we know that, we can prevent turning a potentially dangerous religious idea into an actually dangerous one.
The answer, in part, is to learn self-critical thinking, which means being able to challenge various interpretations of ideas, particularly theological ones, without dismissing them as stupid or irrelevant.
A rabbi once described the Talmud to me as 3,000 pages of unresolved debate. The lesson in that, he said, is that we should never imagine that we have said the final word on any subject but must remain open to new light, even as we commit ourselves to a religious path that makes the most sense to us.
For Mikva, it's not a matter of corrupting good religious ideas, it's recognizing that "the flaws are built in. . .It is my contention that most religions of the world have known it all along."
One of the problems, she correctly asserts, is that "people tend to begin with their conviction and then hunt for scriptural verses to support their view, making religions speak to the contemporary debate."
That approach, of course, means, as Mikva writes, that "the idea of scripture is dangerous. As long as there is scripture, people will wield the word as a weapon against each other in order to justify their own biases. As long as there is scripture, we have to reckon with the painful silences of those voices left out of the canon. As long as there is scripture, some people will turn their back on other God-given ways of knowing."
One of the ideas in this book that I found most helpful comes from a Flemish philosopher named Herman De Dijn, whom Mikva paraphrases this way: "religion is not really about truth in any event. . .Religion is about meaning. . ."
Which is not to say that religion doesn't offer truth to its adherents. Rather, it's to say that if that truth doesn't issue in meaning to help make sense of life's purposes, it's pretty useless.
The author explores the difficult ideas of chosenness in Judaism, election in Christianity and divine guidance in Islam to help readers see how such notions can be both destructive and generative. Which, of course, is the problem with many religious ideas -- they can be both, though usually not at the same time. And it takes discernment to avoid using such ideas to tear down others.
Mikva says that "by identifying the dangers of religious ideas, I mean to improve them, not to disqualify them."
Maybe every book of scripture and every religion itself should come with a label that says, "Caution: May be dangerous if used without discernment."
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THE FBI-SAUDI DATA SHOULD BE PUBLIC
Speaking of dangerous religious ideas, we know that a majority of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, which also was the home of Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaida terrorist group that led the attacks. We also know, as this Yahoo news story reports, that there are "still-classified documents about an FBI investigation into the Saudi role in the terror attacks that were blocked from public release by the Trump administration." Now, in the wake of a U.S. intelligence report saying that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was primarily responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some 9/11 family members are pressing the Biden administration to release that FBI information so we know what role, if any, the Saudi government may have played in 9/11. As a member of a 9/11 family, I support this move. Americans need to know the full truth behind the attacks. My newly released book tells the story of the multiple traumas my extended family experienced because of the murder of my nephew on 9/11, and it explores the question of why some people buy into extremist ideas and what we can do about that.