This entry is more than twice as long as it ought to be. I try to keep my blog pieces under 500 words, and this is more than double that. I have been carrying it around in my head since Saturday, through the frenzy of Easter and an ensuing all-family gastric flu of epic intensity. So please bear with me on its length. Or read half now and come back to it later. Or, you know, don't read it at all. That's ok too.
I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s gripping Under the Banner of Heaven. It isn’t a new book, of course. I think for a long time I thought it was about Al Quaeda; only in the last year or so did I realize it was actually about polygamist mormon factions. Naturally, when I found that out, I became interested in reading it at once.
Really, I don’t think the confusion is accidental. Joseph Smith Jr is compared more than once in the book to Mohammed, and the violence and fanaticism described among the most militant persons in the book is compared to that of jihadis. And, despite the objections of the mainline Mormon church (who are not really the subject of the book at all), I think the comparisons are apt. The real subject of the book, according to Krakauer, is “violent faith.”
Krakauer says early on that his main concern and interest is with religion’s capacity to fuel and justify horrifying acts. In the prologue, after detailing the gruesome double murder which acts as the centerpiece of the overall narrative, he writes: “There is a dark side to religious devotion which is too often ignored or denied. As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane—as a means to inciting evil…—there may be no more potent force than religion.” Later on, as one of the many many epigraphs that appear before and between the book’s various chapters and parts there is a long passage from Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian” which is a pretty vicious attack on religion, blaming organized religion for opposing “every moral progress that has been in the world.” Krakauer’s tone is normally more moderate than this (in a strained sort of way), and I find it hard to understand his inclusion of this passage, except that on some level, he must agree with it, and wanted to let Russell say what he felt he could not.
I used to agree with this passage too—and let me note how odd it is to stumble across the sort of thing that one used to believe and no longer does. I would have proudly brandished the name of Bertrand Russell as proof of both my own smartness and the incontrovertabality of my point. When I was fifteen, sixteen years old, it really did seem as if many of the most dreadful deeds ever done—perhaps all of them—had been done in the name of God. There were a few things I didn’t know of course. I didn’t know that Hitler was an atheist, along with the rest of his inner circle. I didn’t know about Pol Pot. I was just learning about Robespierre and Danton and Stalin. All these guys probably would have thought Bertrand Russell was right on the money, and Bertrand Russell would have been horrified.
So that’s problem number one with Russell’s assertion (and the strongly implied assumption of Krakauer’s book): you don’t need to be religious, in Russell’s or Krakauer’s sense of the word, to be an instrument of unimaginable violence and fanaticism. Yes, there are plenty of examples of religious fanaticism gone off the deep end; but, arguably, history’s most spectacular crimes have been committed by atheists in the name of various non-religious idols: race theory, communism, nationalism, fascism.
The flip side of this is a failure to credit religion with any positive achievements at all. Russell was writing in 1927, so the world had not yet witnessed the American Civil Rights movement, a movement which only began to gain serious traction when led from the pulpit. Russell explicitly credits Christian churches with aiding and abetting the institution of slavery (which is fair), but neglects to mention the equally crucial role of the church in creating and sustaining abolitionism. Although Americans across the political spectrum have become accustomed, over the last thirty years, to seeing religion as a pretty narrowly conservative force, traditionally the role of religion in all areas of American moral and political life has been much more complex and nuanced. By contrast, the places where science has been co-opted to create new moral philosophies have resulted in neither good morality nor good science (social Darwinism anyone?). The more you think about it (the more I think about it, anyway), it isn’t so much that the worst thing about humanity is religion (or government, or nationalism, or ideology, or any one thing). The problem with humanity is that we are human. And most of those other things (government, nationalism, religion) have developed as attempts to deal with that fundamental problem of trying to make us better than we are. Who really thinks it would be a good idea if we stopped trying?
As an author, Krakauer is drawn to both extremism and extreme situations. Even a glancing acquaintance with his other works makes it clear that his reputation is built on that. And the combination of religion and extremism is powerful stuff, frightening even when it does no harm. The New England colonies owed their existence and survival to it, and bemoaned the loss of that early fervor for two generations, before slipping quietly into Unitarianism. Krakauer rightly describes extremist zeal as a kind of high. And one of the things Krakauer astutely notes about extremism and the exaltation it brings, is a marked diminishment of empathy on the part of extremists.
Krakauer is not a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens, pouring scorn on the benighted believers in religions of all stripes. Although he admits that he has not found a religious creed that fits him, and although it is clear that some elements of faith baffle and even horrify him, he has too much empathy himself to be a kind of anti-religious zealot. And empathy, and the compassion that goes with empathy—I have not yet seen or heard of a religion that doesn’t hold that as a central tenet. In Christianity it is a key component of the Golden Rule. “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” What is that but a call to empathy? “Love one another as I have loved you.” What is that but a call to compassion? It is religion that provides us with a meaningful moral compass with which to condemn the very religious excesses that Krakauer describes, even if that moral code has been more or less desacralized. So in the face of the horrors that Krakauer chronicles, committed in the name of faith, I am disappointed a little at his unwillingness to discriminate, to note that faith (or a perversion of it) leads some to do terrible things; but not to embrace a little more warmly than he does, that faith (as the Greeks used to say of Eros) is also a builder of cities.