When I was growing up in Georgia, a religious group ran a regular ad in the newspaper with the headline "Why Do the Heathen Rage?" The phrase begins Psalm 2 in the King James Version of the Bible (later translations usually use "nations" rather than "heathen"), and the psalmist's answer is that nonbelievers rage because they do not serve God. The ad seemed intended to provoke fear and trembling, but it usually made me laugh as I pictured angry natives jumping up and down, shaking their fists in fury.
The more important question, to me, is "Why Do the Faithful Rage?" What is it about religious belief that stirs up war and persecution? Look deeply into the history of any of the major religions and you will find atrocities against those who believe differently. Extremism didn't start on 9-11, and it certainly isn't confined to Islam.
Often, quarrels that are labled religious are really political or territorial, but not all. Far too much violence is committed in the name of God. Why?
Part of the answer, of course, is that it's easy to use "God told me to do it" as an excuse for whatever you want to do, especially if you are in a position of power. But what of the sincere zealots who would fight to the death -- yours, that is -- to prove that your beliefs are wrong?
The paradox is that connection to God is so important to human beings that they are willing to violate one of God's most basic commandments -- Thou shalt not kill -- if they fear that connection is in danger.
It's the very power and potential of religion that leads to its worst distortions.
CNN.com has an interesting interview with Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state and the author of "The Mighty and the Almighty," on the influence of religion on world affairs. I thought this quote speaks to the same point:
"I found the first time I went to Jerusalem, my initial reaction was, people are arguing over all this all the time, it made me think, well, there can’t be a God, why would God put up with this? And then I had the total opposite reaction. One that stays with me, which is that there are so many holy places and symbols there, and all anybody talks about is their relationship to those symbols and to God, and therefore the power of God must be so strong there. I just think that it would be much better if people could figure out ... how to agree about it."
Amen to that. Is it possible to agree that everyone's relationship to God is important, even if those relationships take very different forms? What can religions and their followers do to make that happen?