In the wake of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and all of the thoughts that have been shared online in its wake, one conflict in particular has kept me thinking, as someone who has been immersed in the Jewish tradition but values rationality very highly. That conflict is whether religions have a legitimate claim to existence in the world today. This is a huge topic, so I am going to focus just on the aspect that is brought up again and again when remembering 9/11.
It is hard to deny that awareness of, and hatred towards, Muslims as a group increased dramatically after 9/11. However, beyond the clearly anti-Semitic (yes, Islam is a Semitic religion) generalization this implies, it actually brings up an important question that I am simply unprepared to argue with regards to any religion other than Judaism: and that is whether such acts of extreme hatred, whether justified in any way, shape or form, are offered a more fertile breeding ground in religion than they would be otherwise.
On the other side of this argument is the view that religion, while ostensibly the cause of much evil in the world over the course of history, has also been the source of boundless good, and it is hard in any case to distinguish between the motives of the humans who did the good and bad actions in question and their religious convictions at the time.
The memorialization of 9/11 this past week in almost any news source or blog has brought this to a fore, poignantly featured in the blog of the atheist I respect the most, Sam Harris, who wrote:
Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history — when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world — not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive — and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children. (from September 11, 2011)
I expect that this quote, taken out of the context of the philosophy which couches it, will be alarming and taken as deeply offensive to many people I know personally. So I would like to say up front that this is not meant as an attack of anyone, but rather as an opportunity to consider a view that I find extremely hard to oppose on rational grounds.
I want to give a brief picture of how this conflict, not a new one for me by any stretch, has manifested itself personally at the two beginnings of years at Pardes. Last year, one of the reactions I had to having thoughts such as these confronted by all that Pardes offers was that it might be preferable to eliminate to whatever extent possible all self-made human groups, which inevitably encouraged the formation of an ‘Us’ against an ‘Other’ binary which is extremely harmful if either group gains enough power.
This year, with a little more experience and struggling under the proverbial belt, I come at the issue from the other angle, and grieve at the thought of trying to eliminate these human-made groups in order to achieve a more sustainable sense of world peace (my reading of Brave New World and Oryx and Crake this summer contributed greatly to my own thought process). Why? Because, while the goal is one that ought to occupy the minds of all people who want to see the end of human suffering, the means to get there may make the goal meaningless, literally. As to rob the world of all the cultural constructions humans have congregated into, and made meaning through, over history, is to rob us all of something so utterly beautiful as to properly be equated with what it has meant to be human on this planet. I say all of this only on the basis of a short beginning of a lifetime’s worth of exposure to one single example of such a culture.
But whenever I wish to settle into the comfortable position of saying that human culture, in all forms, is deep beyond comprehension, and ought to be allowed to prosper indefinitely, some event reminds me of the costs such an attitude has extracted when it comes to certain cultures, even just in my lifetime. Sam Harris ends his post by saying:
Ten years have passed since a group of mostly educated and middle-class men decided to obliterate themselves, along with three thousand innocents, to gain entrance to an imaginary Paradise. This problem was always deeper than the threat of terrorism — and our waging an interminable ‘war on terror’ is no answer to it. Yes, we must destroy al Qaeda. But humanity has a larger project — to become sane. If September 11, 2001, should have taught us anything, it is that we must find honest consolation in our capacity for love, creativity, and understanding. This remains possible. It is also necessary. And the alternatives are bleak.
This is not an issue with an answer. But Harris’ call for love, creativity, and understanding is as good a place as any to begin.