Muslim Cartoon Rage Latest Example of Religious Virus
A new book argues that violence in the name of religion is a natural outgrowth of the viral nature of religion itself.
An ant climbs a blade of grass, over and over, seemingly without purpose, seeking neither nourishment nor home. It persists in its futile climb, explains Daniel C. Dennett at the opening of his new book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” (Viking), because its brain has been taken over by a parasite, a lancet fluke, which, over the course of evolution, has found this to be a particularly efficient way to get into the stomach of a grazing sheep or cow where it can flourish and reproduce. The ant is controlled by the worm, which, equally unconscious of purpose, maneuvers the ant into place.
Mr. Dennett, anticipating the outrage his comparison will make, suggests that this how religion works. People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea “that has lodged in their brains.” That idea, he argues, is like a virus or a worm, and it inspires bizarre forms of behavior in order to propagate itself. Islam, he points out, means “submission,” and submission is what religious believers practice. In Mr. Dennett’s view, they do so despite all evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend.
Now that is iconoclasm — a wholehearted attempt to destroy a respected icon. “I believe that it is very important to break this spell,” Mr. Dennett writes, as he tries to undermine the claims and authority of religious belief. Attacks on religion, of course, have been a staple of Western secular society since the Enlightenment, though often carried out with far less finesse (and far less emphasis on biology) than Mr. Dennett does; he refers to “the widespread presumption by social scientists that religion is some kind of lunacy.”
Mr. Dennett understands, too, that iconoclasm, with its lack of deference, can also give offense. But not even he could have imagined the response to the now notorious Danish cartoons that have so offended Muslims around the world, leading to riots, death and destruction. It was as if the problem of religious belief in the modern world had been highlighted in garish colors. If Mr. Dennett’s attack is a premeditated spur to debate, the Muslim riots shock with their primordial force. Together, they leave us with a tough set of intertwining questions: Can religion — with its absolute and sweeping assertions — make any claim on a society whose doctrines require it to defer, in part, to all, even to blasphemers? Can religion be as dramatically shunted aside as Mr. Dennett desires? If not, what sort of accommodation is needed?
Mr. Dennett would like the coolness of reason to replace the commands of faith. The riots, though, show that at the very least, reason alone is insufficient. They are not just metaphorically iconoclastic in their challenge. They are literally iconoclastic: attempts to destroy any trace of forbidden images or inspire fear in any who might object. They are the latest manifestations of battles that once took place within the West, particularly during the eighth century, when iconoclasm got its name. At that time leaders of the Eastern Church, perhaps inspired by Islamic and Judaic prohibitions against images, objected to religious icons as a form of idolatry.
At a recent conference at Columbia University, “Religion and Liberalism,” organized by Andrew Delbanco and the American Studies Program, there were some fascinating attempts to try to imagine something other than iconoclasm in the relationship between secular politics and religion once eighth-century tactics are left behind. Speakers, including E. J. Dionne Jr., Mark Lilla, Alan Wolfe, Todd Gitlin, Mary Gordon, Susannah Heschel and Elisabeth Sifton, distanced themselves from the kind of attack on religion that Mr. Dennett proposes, while trying, too, to pry religion away from its contemporary association with conservative politics and fundamentalism. For some it seemed an attempt to “save” religion for liberalism, while still keeping a safe distance.
The issues, though, remain intractable and unrelenting. But it may be that the United States has already offered one kind of an answer, creating a society in which faith and reason continually cohabit in uneasy proximity, and iconoclasm is as commonplace as belief.
It is doubtless true that religion, like anything else that inspires intense passion, can lead to mass hysteria and even violence. A lot of blood has been shed in the name of nationalism, greed, and even romantic love. There are riots and murders over soccer games, for goodness sakes.
In the context of a rational society, however, these things tend to be moderated. As Rothstein notes in the last sentence of the excerpt, the United States is an example of a society that is both deeply religious and yet tolerant of iconoclasm. Christians in the United States routinely suffer what they perceive as insults to their creed, meeting them with reactions ranging from indifference to product boycotts to demanding the withholding of taxpayer funding. Rioting and mass murder, however, have long been considered beyond the pale.
See these cartoons in full size here.
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