The One Thing We Must Do About Paris, Terrorism and Religion

Did the events in Paris have anything to do with religion?

In the surreal world that is modern discourse, some writers and leaders strangely suggest that religion had nothing to do with the attacks in Paris. Paralyzed by political correctness, they do everything possible to avoid discussing the connection between the attack and Islam, even when the rallying cry that the murderers used was explicitly religious.

On the other end of the spectrum, for some of the same reasons, some argue that religion - everyone's religion is the problem. Recently, for example, author Diana Butler Bass suggested that religion and, in particular, a belief in a transcendent God accounts for the terror attacks in Paris and, pretty much, violence of every kind.

Blaming not just Islam, but Christianity, Judaism, and anyone else who believes in a God that is transcendent, she writes:

One of the most poignant moments in the wake of the Paris attacks was the street musician who played a moving rendition of John Lennon's Imagine. As the melody sounded, the familiar words rang in my mind:

Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace...

The Paris attacks reignited an argument we have been having for a long time, but most especially since 9/11. Religion, particularly when twinned with nationalism, is to blame for division, terrorism, violence and war. Not just Islam. Religion. As Lennon lyrically opined, the planet would be better off without it.

Religion is the problem.

There are at least four difficulties with this line of reasoning:

One: There have been murderous secularists throughout history: Pol Pot, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, to name a few. In those cases, religion was not only not the cause, it wasn't a factor at all.

Two: Many (if not most) of the world's greatest peacemakers have been people who believe in a transcendent God: Martin Luther King, Dag Hammarskjold, and Mother Theresa, to name a few, not to mention "the Prince of Peace."

Three: The universalism of Judaism and Christianity -- albeit reluctantly, at times -- embraced the whole of humankind. (See Genesis 1-3, the Book of Jonah, Jeremiah the Prophet, the Gospel of Matthew, Paul, and the Book of Revelation)

Four: From religion to religion and even within the three Abrahamic faiths, the way in which the transcendent God of each is portrayed varies. Indeed, in many cases it is precisely the appeal to a transcendent God of love that trumps our personal preferences, requiring more, not less of us morally and spiritually.

Then there's the less important, but painfully domestic reality: John Lennon could sing about a reconciled world, but he couldn't even manage around his own ego effectively enough to hold the Beatles together, never mind engineer world peace.

So, unlike my friend and colleague, I don't expect the spiritual-not-religious movement around the world to lead to global harmony.

The painful, difficult, daunting truth is that there is no great body of thought, no virtue, no institution, no conviction that has not been turned to evil purposes by people with evil intent: motherhood, family, freedom, justice, love, scholarship, patriotism, peace, and, yes, spirituality - have all been corrupted, subverted, or misused.

People are the problem. Not religion. Religion is simply the pretext that some murderous souls use for the evil that they do.

There are undoubtedly other things we can do, but the one, necessary task before every one of our religious communities is to be morally and theologically resolute on this one point:

Murderers may seek shelter in our respective faiths, but if they do, they are mistaken, they are impostors, and we stand in opposition to them.

What that will look like for each of us will vary. But this much moral clarity we can and should offer the world.

photo by Salvatore Vuono, used with permission from