This morning in a town in central Nigeria a car bomber attacked a Church of Christ and killed at least three people, while injuring dozens more. No matter what you believe — or disbelieve — it’s very hard to find a way to make attacks like these make sense.
I couldn’t help but notice, however, that this was not an attack by atheist secular-humanist college professors, but rather by a Muslim extremist group called Boko Haram. The bomber and his targets alike all professed to believe in God.
In Nigeria, according to Nigerian government statistics, the average male attends 6 years of school. In urban areas, 30% of adults have never attended school at all. In rural areas, that number doubles. On average, 72% of children cannot read all or part of a sentence. Given these figures, it would be hard to attribute the attack on the church to the a conspiracy by an over-educated populace.
In this country politicians and talking heads have been going on — sometimes muttering, sometimes shouting — about a “war on religion” begin carried out by the “secular-humanist elites”: college professors and people who read books who want to separate Americans from their Gods through indoctrination and regulation. The script implies that this attack is in some way organized, a coordinated campaign being orchestrated by a cabal of atheistic intellectuals who want to destroy civilization as we know it (for reasons that no one has made entirely clear). Rick Santorum has called President Obama a “snob” because Obama has advocated making college education more widely available; Santorum claims that once the children of America are enmeshed in the university/atheist madrassa system they will be “indoctrinated.” (It should be noted that crowd to which he made this statement applauded vigorously.)
I am fortunate enough to have a number of friends and relatives who teach, and I find that this is a group that would have a hard time planning and coordinating a child’s birthday party over the course of a Saturday morning, let alone brainwashing the hapless victim over a period of years.
Intellectuals are independent people, focused and sometimes prickly. They don’t work well in groups. They pursue ideas, not agendas. The agendas grow out of the interpretations others place on those ideas. In the nineteenth century Charles Darwin’s work on the evolution of species through natural selection was seized upon almost immediately by social engineers who began to promulgate the concept of “social evolution”, that people who failed in life were destined to do so because of intrinsic flaws and should not be helped, but should be allowed to fall away to make the society that remained more durable, more “fit”. This was a terrible corruption of the ideas of a man of very deep Christian faith and charity (his original career goal was to become an Anglican missionary) but this is all too often what happens when ideas are used as tools to elevate one group over another, or to bludgeon human beings, in their tremendous variety, into one single view of the universe.
Or sometimes simply to lash out, in fear or anger or greed, at a world that is difficult and complicated and sometime completely incomprehensible.
Religion offers consolation to those who suffer; so do ideas. When they are at their best, the churches and temples and mosques and synagogues of the world step up, offer their hands to those in need, to the lost or the angry or the bewildered. The intellectual, in his way, tries to do the same, by looking for answers, by seeking to understand the way things work, by trying to map out our universe, to shine the light of exploration and investigation into the dark places, driving back the dragons of ignorance and hatred and violence by discovering the caves that spawn them and opening them up to the light of day. When religion shelters or even nurtures those evils, it becomes a corruption of itself. When the intellectual fails to question, to doubt, to examine everything, in his or her search for knowledge, he risks drifting into dogma.
I’m an atheist and and intellectual. I will never kill another human being for his beliefs (or lack of them), or for the sake of my own, because in my world both have value. Even Rick Santorum has the potential to shine a light now and then: after all, apart from the “R”one usually sees after his name, he also is a product of the secular-humanist university system: Rick Santorum, BA (Penn State), MBA (University of Pittsburgh), JD (Dickinson School of Law).
Without free will, isn’t religion meaningless? If we are all forced to believe, then how are we better for that belief? Without choices, our decisions to accept or deny God means nothing, because such a decision is not a decision at all, it asks nothing of us. Perhaps if this morning’s suicide bomber had been given the opportunity to see his religion as a choice, as something to be embraced (or rejected) in the light of knowledge, from a universe of choices, he might have behaved differently. If he could have understood, at a fundamental level, that the people worshiping in that church were seeking the same answers, the same consolations, the same grace, that he sought in his own faith he might have been prepared to see them as fellow seekers, companions on a search for truth, rather than as faceless enemies deserving only death. (Perhaps his choice, like mine, might have led away from religion entirely.) In any event, I don’t think he would have been as likely to load a car with explosives and drive it into a church.
The rhetoric of a “war” by or against intellectuals, by or against religion, only serves to limit both of us, to restrict us to the permitted dogma of our respective positions. I, for one, refuse to be limited. Like the mansion of God, the universe I live in has many rooms, and there is space for more than just me and my ideas in it, no matter how big I think those ideas are.
Let’s open a few windows and say hello to the neighbors, before things get out of hand.
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