What was Christian Pastor Terry Jones thinking when he put the Koran on trial, convicted it, and burned a copy of the holy book?
Was he thinking that the country he loves is besieged by evil foreigners who hate all that is holy?
What were the Muslim Afghani mobs thinking when they vented their outrage over the burning of the Koran by killing seven foreign aid workers?
Were they thinking that the country they love is besieged by evil foreigners who hate all that is holy?
Practically, of course, there is no comparison between Jones’ blasphemous barbecue – and we believe the right to blasphemy should not, as per the First Amendment, be abridged – and the Afghani murderous rampage.
But psychologically, they’re much alike in their xenophobic religious zeal.
And while Jones was condemned by a broad spectrum of American and political leaders, his tendency to find nothing but evil in Islam – while ignoring many of the same alleged crimes in his (and our) holy books – is part of a wide pattern of religion-fueled bigotry that reflects a lot of fear and very little thought.
Take, for example, the recent remarks of possible presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
“I have two grandchildren – Maggie is 11, Robert is 9,” Gingrich said. “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists.”
Radical Islamists don’t come to power in atheist countries. They come to power in religious Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan.
But for Gingrich, atheism and Islamic radicalism are the same thing: his enemy. He has placed all of his fears and nightmares and visions of evil on these two positions, and hasn’t noticed that they are staunchly opposed to each other. He has no philosophy of religion; he has base paranoia.
On one level, this may be understandable. Scientists tell us that oxytocin, the hormone linked to love and maternal bonding, heightens affection within one’s social group, heightening increasing discrimination against others. And religion, some have speculated, by providing feelings of security, may raise our oxytocin levels. What makes us feel warm in shul may predispose us to feel cold to those outside our community.
Leaders of Bergen County’s religious community stumbled upon an antidote a quarter century ago. The annual meal of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood/Sisterhood committee provides an opportunity for social bonding across the religious lines that usually divide us.
The shared celebration creates a larger social group. Catholics, Protestants, and Jews – and Muslims, Bahai’s, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs – can together form an “us” rather than a “them.”
In fighting paranoia at its source, the Interfaith Committee shows us a positive way forward.