Noun: extremism; the holding of extreme political or religious views; fanaticism.
The appalling terrorist attacks of the recent months have made 2016 a year of infamy. It has left many horrified and bewildered by the utter cruelty of these acts of violence towards innocent people in European and Middle Eastern cities. Why are they happening? Why have the hearts and minds of certain individuals been so hardened to the suffering of others, and human life itself, that they can kill, and seek to be killed, in as dramatic and bloody a manner as possible? For some people one answer is religion.
A tribute of flowers and candles in the shape of a heart is set up at Place de la Republique in Paris in memory of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack.
Being a Christian priest and highly visible in public attracts all manner of conversations with strangers about religion and its consequences. One such conversation begins with a variation of the question, ‘Why does religion cause so much hatred and violence?’ At one level this is a valid question however no one has ever, yet, come up to me and asked, ‘Why does religion spread so much love and charity?’ This is an equally valid question. Both questions arise from a basic misunderstanding of the roots and purpose of religious faith.
All the major world religions take seriously the capacity of human beings for good or evil. The fundamental issue religions try to address is the nature of people and our capacities to for good or ill. We are people who love and hate: who build up and destroy: who inflict suffering or heal it: we can oppress or set free; these conflicting impulses undergird all human groupings. The basis of any advanced human society is the balance engendered between cooperation and competition, between power and morality among us. This is reinforced by values, beliefs and the law of the land. Breaking the law is a challenge to the balance of our social harmony and therefore a threat to it; where there is a total breakdown in law and order so society also breaks down.
True religion is a quest for truth; a quest which calls us all to examine the dark places of our hearts and accept our baser instincts as a fact of life. A quest which aids us to see not only how we are but how we could be; to use our imagination as a means of transcending our own selfish, petty desires and broaden our view of the world as a place of infinite opportunities for goodness and selflessness.
The author G.K. Chesterton commented: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
Those who take a pessimistic view of human beings will contradict any human idealism with the notion that we are not much better than animals; fighting for territory, food and copulation. But if this is the case why are we continually amazed by reports of heroic acts selflessness and sacrifice happening in the world? Why do we human beings reach for the stars, or create music which touches us to the core? Or build magnificent structures and create works of art which astound us by their beauty and grace? While we carry baser instincts in our genes they are not the whole story. True religion, when it is faithfully followed and practiced, is an exercise of human progress. Anyone who kills the innocent in the name of religion is no friend of God. Anyone who justifies acts of cruelty and oppression against the innocent in the name of God is blaspheming God’s name. Anyone who reaches out in love and charity to the needy and downcast, or, who opposes cruelty and violence, in whatever form it takes, is acting from the nobility of true religion.
Father Larry Wright,
The Religious Affairs Advisory Council, London