With the tragic news coming out of Paris, a predictable set of recriminations are about to begin. Because of the actions of some extremists, “religion” will be labeled a danger to civilization and the sad loss of life at Charlie Hebdo will be chalked up to secular martyrs in the cause of reason. The reality, however, is not so simple. Fundamentalism, as one of my influential teachers used to say, is not a theological position—it is a psychological problem. Indeed, religion does not cause Fundamentalists to become violent, it is rather that religion is used as an excuse by Fundamentalists to act out their aberrations. The religious impulse, no matter how rational we become, will never go away. Those who fear that civilization will collapse might do well to reflect on the fact that religion is one of the earliest defining characteristics of civilization. It is a formalized expression of a deeply felt need, widely shared.
At times it feels as if we’re caught on a possessed merry-go-round. We weaponize our world without stabilizing economies or opportunities. (I know I’m oversimplifying here.) People turn to religion for consolation. Religions give some people the strength to deal with their difficulties. Others will use their religion to justify their hatred and fear. Weapons are nearly as easily found as sacred scriptures. One, however, is much easier to use than the other. Twelve people lie dead for trying to make the world laugh. Three others are surely feeling justified by the extremity of their faith. There is truth in the concept of weeping clowns.
Ironically, in a world where pundits and experts refuse to give any credence to religious beliefs, and do not support the study of religion and its offshoots, multiple times each year we find the press asking why this happens. I’m not suggesting that those of us who study religion have an answer, but I am suggesting that we might have some insight. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of claiming that “religion” has claimed more victims, we need to realize that criminals have claimed victims, both human and abstract. The shooting at Charlie Hebdo is a sad reminder that simple answers are seldom correct ones. My plea has, however, never been complex: supply education, not assault rifles. That’s something in which we can believe.