It may be a triumph for apologetics, but it is not a triumph for truth. Our activists undoubtedly have good intentions, but their arguments are not in the least convincing. Religious belief and religious ideology, it is claimed, have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s decision to commit acts of violence, and the sociologists’ summarised research backs this up. In short, we don’t have a problem with extremism, so let’s move on.
Of course all of this is nonsense. An in depth reading of history is hardly necessary to see that religious belief has often led to types of activism which have terrorised others. From the Zealots of Qumran to the Umayyad caliphate against its opponents, from the Inquisition and Conquistadors to the Stern Gang, we could enumerate hundreds of thousands of examples of acts of violence sanctioned as a religious duty.
Sure we can all argue that when representatives of religion promulgate violence they are acting against the essence of the religion itself, but this is a difficult argument to make given that religions are in a constant state of adaption and flux, filtered through the worldview and experience of their adherents.
All manner of arguments can be had about authentic teachings or orthodox beliefs — and all of us want to believe that we personally have a proper grasp of the truest and most authentic original faith as conveyed to us by the Messengers — but they obscure the reality that religious belief is expressed, interpreted and practiced in a multitude of ways, even when based upon the same sources.
It is undoubtedly true that millions of people have lost their lives during the past century for reasons other than religion; the scourge of nationalism and the rise of ideologies such as Communism have caused slaughter unmatched in earlier times. Nobody denies this. But recognising this fact does not absolve the religious of responsibility. It is truly not possible to claim that religion has nothing to do with violent extremism and it is foolish to pretend that this is so.
Have we not seen sincere young converts commit atrocious acts of barbarity thousands of miles from home because they were taught and convinced that it was their religious duty? To pretend that this is not so does a disservice to us all. If we are to address the situations in which we find ourselves and prevent atrocious acts of barbarism, we much start by acknowledging uncomfortable realities. Naïve apologetics cannot do that; only sceptical introspection borne of faith can fix the diseases which afflict us.