Dealing With
Religious 'Terror-ism'

By Paul Von Ward
The U.S. "war on terrorism" has now consumed thousands of lives, approaches a trillion dollars in public and private costs, weakens civil liberties, and recruits even larger numbers of terrorists. Does such a price really enhance our long-term security? Does it actually make the world a better place for our children?
[Beginning his professional life as a Protestant minister and psychologist, now a cosmologist and author, Paul has served as a U.S. naval officer, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (15 years), and CEO of an international nonprofit (15 years).]
An Irrational Response? Most of the world considers America's primarily military response, including the invasion of Iraq, out of proportion to the realistic threat to its citizens. Even if one accepts that special interests secretly pushed the President to war, how did they get Congress to ignore the Constitution's requirement that it declare war? How did they convince voters to mortgage the war with their grandchildren's future?
In my view, the public's acquiescence was shaped by a deep, unarticulated psychological sense of threat. A threat more ominous than calculations about the odds of being killed by terrorists. A threat to the individual's psychogenic core.
Europeans and others have had difficulty understanding why America rejected offers of advice, based on their civil-police approach to terrorism, in the weeks following 9/11. They know from experience in Vietnam, Algeria, and other former colonies that conventional high-tech warfare radicalizes multiple new terrorists for each one it kills. They cannot imagine why the U.S. would take countermeasures (a full-blown military response) that are so counterproductive (produce more terrorists). Unaware of the psychological depth of America's religious fundamentalism, the Europeans could only see irrational behavior.
A Psychological Perspective. To understand this American "irrationality", I believe we must examine religious influences on today's terrorism and the U.S. response to it. We must go deep enough to identify the interaction of existential beliefs and their associated psychological states with individual and group behavior. When the validity of their soul-binding beliefs is threatened by physical or psychological coercion, humans lash out at any representative of the perceived threat. In a religious context, the fundamentalist, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other, will use any means available to defend the faith that holds his soul together. Their defense may be direct, as for kamikaze pilots or suicide bombers, or indirect, through the use of mercenaries or surrogate foot soldiers willing to be "heroes".
Historical accounts of Christians and Jews show them fighting with tenacity, using acts of terrorism, when their fundamental beliefs were threatened. From this experience, we have no reason to expect that American force can subdue the abject existential terror that arises when Islamic core beliefs are threatened.
In fact, we see this historical scenario being re-played by America as well. The 9/11 attack had meaning far beyond its suggestion of physical vulnerabilities. By its clear religious audacity, the terrorists' tactical suicide called into question the American's presumption of a "God-protected country". Due to its ingrained notion of "a chosen people, under the True God", America was forced by its own psychosis to blast the hell out of the enemy to prove that God was still protecting it. (Many apparently saw the successful attack with airliners as God permitting the Devil to "give us a wake up call" to return to God's fold. This included not only fundamentalists, but some who had edged away from religious orthodoxy.)
Seeking Ways to Erase Conflict. Some secular and more progressive religious groups in the U. S. think the solution to terrorism is for America (and the Judeo-Christian West in general) to separate out moderate Muslims and "help" Islamic fanatics see the "light", to convince them that their "extreme or out-dated religious beliefs", in contrast to those of the West, are ill-founded. This unilateral "educational" approach would be a mistake, reinforcing, as it does, a Western religious elitism. It cannot succeed.
Muslims, just like Christians and Jews, do not readily respond to proselytizing or attempts at conversion. It is conceivable some moderates among them might respond to a sincere, egalitarian discussion of fundamental beliefs. But how many Christians or Jews would put their own theological assumptions on the table as just another belief system? Without being obviously unfair they could not ask the Muslims to question Islamic views of reality without questioning their own. For untold Americans, it would unleash their own soul-wrenching terror.
I believe the psychological force behind the present American-Islamic "war of terrorism" derives from the same source on both sides. Each unconsciously fears a public, transparent discussion of the assumptions on which all supernatural religions rest. A rational, scientific exploration of the religious history of Western civilization, and its role in powerful, modern institutions would reveal the shaky assertions on which we have built the edifices of power (in the East and West). Believers in any religion whose "sanity" rests on its theological assumptions are not psychologically ready to be so vulnerable. Deny a fundamental precept of their conception of "God and his people" and you get "a srceeching, snarling, all-claws-bared, fight for survival".
Can we test this assertion? I believe we can by looking at the correlation of behaviors with existential (religious) beliefs. Analysis of believers' reactions to domestic issues show they shake important underpinnings of the faith. Abortion rights, gay marriage, and evolution elicit deep, existential emotional turbulence.
In the big picture of the cosmos, what difference did it make in 2004 to give a few gay and lesbian couples the same civil rights as heterosexual couples? Once again we saw a reaction way out of proportion to the event. The national campaign became an all-out war to defeat candidates who were on the "wrong" side of the issue. It became clear that these voters had declared the goal of a theocratic state in America. They gave their power to "religious" officials, even though those officials made policies counter to the individual believer's own interests. Support was given to economic policies detrimental to the voters' families.
This over-reaction, in many ways counter to the religious group's own long-term interests, occurs because gay marriage poses the same sort of psychological threat as Islamic terrorism. Namely, it calls into question beliefs deeply buried in the psyche that have become the foundations of one's deepest sense of being. Other so-called wedge issues pose the same existential threat to believers.
On all these issues, we're in the realm of assertions based in faith, a "take-it-all or leave-it" stance, that cannot be negotiated with the non-believer. But, you ask, why do people feel they must fight over these specific beliefs. Because they have boxed themselves into a situation where all their basic assumptions have to stand up or the whole "house of words" tumbles if one shibboleth is removed. This means they cannot discuss, and certainly not accept, the possibility that they might not have it all right. To admit a deficiency sends tremors up the spine.
[This is the first in a series of articles that will examine the hypotheses set forth here and explore possible options for stimulating an effective dialogue that could foster human unity and the development of greater harmony among different world views. Feedback from readers is very welcome. I am testing a self-administered survey to help individuals assess their relative tendencies in physical, supernatural, mystical, and skeptical modes of consciousness. Participation in its development is also welcome. See background and contact information below. Thanks, Paul]
Paul Von Ward - P.O. Box 55, Monteagle, TN 37356 - Tel: 931/924-3684
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