on religion, or lack thereof

David Brooks’ column in the New York Times Friday morning took as its subject our frustrating inability to understand the motivation behind religious extremism. President Obama gave a speech earlier this week at the self-explanatory and I’m certain highly effective, “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” (eye-roll) which has been almost universally panned.

Between President Obama, Attorney General Holder and the minions they trotted out at talk shows across the cable news spectrum this week, we had our fill of the “party line,” which the administration has been remarkably consistent in communicating. (Hats off to the Obama communication team!)

Anyways, I’ll summarize the speech, and subsequent reiterations of said speech like this. If we, as Americans and world leaders, can just demonstrate the men and women who turn towards various forms of religious extremism and terrorism, the omnipresent, but occasionally elusive economic opportunity they’re assuredly seeking (because obviously everyone wants the same thing) and the subsequent jobs, money, education that will result, they won’t feel the need to cross over to the proverbial dark side.


Even those of us who are not religiously inclined have a difficult time with the idea that the only thing standing in the way of an individual brutally attacking an innocent human is the lack of, ahem, “economic opportunity.” There’s just a lingering feeling amongst most that there is surely something more.

If you’re tracking with me, the next step I think is to recognize that the motivation for many of these people is composed of intangibles, things that can’t be quantified. Grand, age-old ideas such as faith, honor, spiritual glory, things that are so very far removed from western civilization’s thinking in the 21st century, we tend to forget they exist altogether.

The history of the west is the history of ever-increasing secularization, something which in and of itself is not necessarily bad. A hyper-connected, global world necessitates the inclusion of any number of divergent belief systems in any one system, and the government, along with every other institution, must adapt a sort of impartial status in order to accommodate everyone.

But what no one bargained for, at least I don’t think intentionally, was the rather pervasive blindness or ignorance this secularization would result in if taken to its logical extreme.

In 2015 we (the west) have essentially forgotten (willfully or not) the power of religion; that supremely powerful motivational force of faith in eternal salvation or spiritual honor. They’re not things to be trifled with, and we’re watching the consequences of their power play out on a large scale, completely incapable of understanding what’s happening, I believe Brooks accurately described us as solipsistic. We’ve closed the door on the part of our history that could have offered an explanation, or at least something close to one, for how to confront, or at least understand, what is happening throughout the world.

I don’t know that I blame anyone, it’s just an observation.

I’m not an expert on world religion but I would imagine in many, if not in all iterations of religious belief, there is a teaching similar to that of Christianity; our life on this Earth is only temporary and it is what comes next that we are meant to be preparing for.

That’s a powerful sentiment, whether you’re rich or poor, healthy or ill, because, in the end, we’re all only here on Earth for a short time.

The thing that struck me the most in thinking about our frustrating inability to understand the current global situation, is something that hits kind of close to home.

I understand, we have an all-consuming faith in democracy here in America, and its not unfounded. Democracy has done wonderful things not only for America but many other countries in the world. But no matter what democracy creates for a nation in terms of opportunity, safety or wealth, on an individual level, it, just like everything else, will never provide happiness or contentment.

For those of you perfectly happy and content with your life, I envy you. You’re beyond rare. Most of us, as human nature seems to dictate, live life generally confused. Confused with why we’re not happy even though we should be, and definitively unable to assuage that unhappiness with any amount of education, wealth or relationships. For some reason, we’re kind of always thinking there’s something more.

To deny that part of your nature, except in rare circumstances, is common. And you can get by pretty easily that way. But I would venture a guess that very many people deal with some semblance of seeking or questioning the reason for their existence on a fairly regular basis.

That’s why people wind up in church, converting to (insert your religion here). Because religion seems to be the only thing that can give us what human nature needs the most: the assurance that this isn’t all there is, that there’s something more.

Now sure, religion is probably not the only thing that can fill that hole, Brooks asserts nationalism, ‘nationalism tied to universal democracy,’ as something that might be what is lacking. The key to the terrorist puzzle.

I think he’s wrong. Pride of country is a wonderful thing, and I wish it very much for people who don’t have it. But that does nothing for us on a truly personal level. It does nothing to answer the big questions. The ones preventing most of us from being entirely at peace.

There’s a reason philosophers and intellectuals have debated the big questions, Who are we? Why are we here? And where are we going? Since the dawn of recorded thought. We have an innate drive to know the answers. And yet, centuries later, we still don’t.

Many of the men and women who turn to extremism in the name of religion, think they have found the answers though. And in a sense, they have.

Perhaps, and I in no way am saying this justifies horrific acts, but perhaps, if we as an international body, had not so clearly turned away from, and rejected our collective religious and spiritual history, we could have provided alternative avenues by which the hopeless of the world, could regain hope. I’m not advocating we all need to convert to faith and start living our lives accordingly. We just need to allow for its existence, and strive to understand it.

I’m sure we could get back there. We could open our minds, step outside of ourselves and truly attempt to understand the motivations of others instead of projecting our own on to them. But it won’t be easy.

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