In Policy Review, August-September, 2002, there appeared an article by Lee Harris, entitled “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology.” Harris writes from a resolutely secular point of view, to address America’s difficulty understanding the events of September 11, 2001. He uses terms of Georges Sorel (myth), Friedrich Nietzsche (Will to Power), and William James (religion). Especially the last functions as a point of scientific objectivity, explaining that William James and Vilfredo Pareto, “took up beliefs . . . and examined them . . . as a botanist examines the flora . . . cataloguing . . . not producing new ones.”
Harris covers the appearances of 9/11 well enough, but below the surface of his argument lies a polemic that needs to be addressed: the polemic against religion of any kind, in favor of Enlightenment empiricism. That has become such a part of our cultural atmosphere that even religious people scarcely notice it any more. The problem is, it leaves us no clear distinction between religion we ought to protect, and religion that needs attacking; between the liturgy of godly worship and the dramatization of Al Qaeda’s fantasy ideology. We need such a distinction, especially at this moment.
We can dispense with William James’s supposed empiricism fairly easily, by starting with the context of Harris’s “botanist” phrase:
James and Pareto viewed non-rational belief from the perspective of an outside observer: They took up the beliefs that they found already circulating in the societies in which they lived and examined them in light of whether they were beneficial or detrimental to the individuals and the societies that entertained them. As a botanist examines the flora of a particular region—he is not interested in creating new flowers, but simply in cataloguing those that already exist—so, too, James and Pareto were exclusively interested in already existing beliefs, and certainly not in producing new ones.
How these gentlemen exemplify the Enlightenment virtues of restraint and self-effacement, creating no new beliefs, handling other people’s with the delicacy of a scientist toward his flora. They only interrogate, they never presume. It takes a Sorel to advance the discussion to speak of beliefs as myth deliberately manufactured to serve power. Not far behind comes a tyrant to use it cynically.
But wait. While we were still on James and Pareto did we not hear “beneficial” and “detrimental”? How did these values sneak into the discussion? It turns out that James is a moralist as well as a naturalist. For to ask whether beliefs may be useful or beneficial, whether they improve the quality of life, James must already have some notions of his own about benefit, detriment, improvement, and quality of life. Of course he does, as all of us do.
Seeing this, we can go on to ask, What would James have to believe to proceed as he does? The answer is unattractive, and calls into question both James’ morality and his empiricism. His argument demonstrates that he holds himself so far above other people’s beliefs that he may as well treat them as flora, vegetable matter, and pronounce upon them de haut en bas.
If so, then what of the Enlightenment world which, as Harris justly says, is “utterly secular, a concatenation of an endless series of cause and effect, with all events occurring on a single ontological plane”? James might want us to think there is only one ontological plane for us, but the form of his project implies that he is not on it. He is even more than a moralist, for an ordinary moralist admits that he is in competition with others on the same ground. James is a visitor from another plane, where there is no competition, only evidence and passive belief. With that he loses his credentials as an Enlightenment man.
Obviously, any article with Al Qaeda in the title must treat of religion—at least Muslim religion. Unfortunately, the prism of Enlightenment empiricism does little to clarify matters for us. We use the terms familiar to us when we try to understand what is unfamiliar. So let us set forth our own take on the terms religion and belief, and our difficulties with them. Faithful Christians and Muslims both have reason to object when certain words comes into play. “Fundamentalism” is only the most obvious.
To the enlightened, all religion is belief without evidence; opinions, ideas with roots in the air; more commonly, plain foolishness. But there is a crucial distinction to be drawn between that and faith. Jacques Ellul, in The Subversion of Christianity, describes it very well. Religion is a sacral system, in which we organize the world into holy and profane spaces, times, and actions. It lies at the core of culture, giving rhythm and meaning to our affairs. Faith is quite something else: an act of God visited upon a person, which holds a disruptive potential that governors wisely fear.
As such Judeo-Christian faith—and probably Muslim faith, if we but knew—is a more outlandish thing than human imagination could devise. “Fundamentalism” is about as unhelpful to our understanding Islam as Quetzalcoatl was to Montezuma confronting Cortés. Christians, Jews, and Muslims—and existentialists on their good days—understand that our true home is not on earth. The closest we get to consolation is the problematic statement, our reward is in heaven—that is, nowhere nearby, and no time soon. To a resolutely empirical mind, this is foolishness. So be it.
Religion and faith both exercise moral force, but faith has it at a remove. For faith realizes and accepts that this is not a moral universe. Life does not deliver rewards and punishments to good and evil. The most cursory reading of the Psalms shows that this is ancient knowledge.
This does not prevent people of faith from having pragmatic goals proper to our present world, but never to be confused with theological hope. For when temporal hopes are conflated with eschatological hopes, ultimate things, they become dangerous beyond imagining. For if our salvation and that of the world really amounts to an ideologically driven program, then there is no sacrifice or brutality too great to accomplish it. All three of the greatest tyrants of the twentieth century, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, were anti-religious crusaders—i.e., religious men in their ways, run amok. They didn’t understand faith any better than the Julian the Apostate, but they understood religionwell enough, albeit cynically.
Religious fanaticism is what we get when hopes are foreshortened, referred back to this world. Apparently the Islam that drives Al Qaeda, is a religion in this sense. Two buildings reduced to rubble and thousands of people dead are certainly tangible results in this world. Faith is an austere and demanding thing. It accepts that we are not going to see a “more perfect Union,” or perfection in anything we do. Our attempts to produce justice are never going to be completely successful. All presumptions to the contrary are problematical. Thus people of faith become contrarians whether they want to be or not.
For our purposes here, belief can be of two kinds. One is the understanding we have of our world, which makes it coherent and bearable, consistent with our experiences from early childhood to today’s news. This contributes to our choice of commitments and ideologies, including religious ideologies. The other is not derived primarily from experience, but that visitation of God of which we spoke above. God is not an object we could construct for ourselves, though people of faith are accused of doing so (weak-minded, needing structure, and so on). The opinions and assertions which serve religion—not faith—are proper targets for skepticism. Faith that knows how to distinguish itself from cultural background noise is rebellion against religious belief. Beliefs fuels religion, sometimes to the point of idolatry. Religion does not easily assume humility before God. More often it vaults the believer onto a plane from which to judge others. To be sure, this kind of religious belief is found among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, to all our peril. Faith informs beliefs that may or may not be cogent, but are always held under judgment, never to be grasped as the thing itself.
Professor Harris distinguishes between belief derived from experience of the world as it is, and belief as a deliberate project to make the world what we—or the tyrant—wants. Such belief is, in Harris’s words, “a deliberate form of make-believe, but one in which the make-believe is not an end in itself, but rather the means of making the make-believe become real.”
To be sure, there is in us a will to believe, and a temptation to see our enemies’ consternation writ large on their faces. Were it not so, there would be no need for laws against idols. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the most ancient and implacable antagonist of idolatry. He defies our will to believe by never showing himself, or only showing his backside, going away (Exodus 33:17–23). If there is any belief around this God, it is belief in him, not about him.
The difference between in and about is not just a preacher’s witticism. We have our beliefs, like the whole of our lives, in God—not a very good metaphor, but one that prevents us from domesticating God, placing him inside ourselves, a suffocating position for both man and God. Our beliefs about God are vain unless he has visited himself upon us first. Then we will know things we never would have thought were it not for our own private Jabbok. The writings of the Church Fathers are full of beliefs derived from such encounters.
Like empirical beliefs, these beliefs are responses to reality, though not derived from evidence in any ordinary meaning of that word. Here is where Harris’s account of belief needs an addition. There is a third thing, neither evidentiary belief nor make-believe, but belief dependent on faith, which is decidedly not made, but comes as a gift—or an assault—from God. Without that distinction, we lose the ability to distinguish between the dramatization of a deadly fantasy ideology of Al Qaeda, and the drama which comprises authentic worship.
Where faith is found, there is hope against that peril. This is not the place for an essay about Christian or Jewish or Muslim ethics, but let it suffice for now to say this: When all you can see of God is his backside, going away, and when the best you can do to make things better is to check and balance, to frustrate all schemes for making things better, you are less likely to think it is worth committing violence for some temporal end. You are more likely to see others as consubstantial with you in suffering—suffering estrangement from God—and simply offer succor. That succor, which is the antonym of both programs and pogroms, is the action of faith.
The world has a surfeit of both religion and anti-religion, and not enough of faith. It needs faith which is capable of surviving cultures, as it already has done many times. When Lee Harris and colleagues write about religion and fantasy ideology—very just terms in their place—they ought also to take great care, to tease these apart from Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) faith, and to respect the latter. For this is the distinction which will enable the just criticism of any religion, and equality of respect among faiths.