There’s something very strange about religion. There have been recent appalling acts of terrorism, allegedly carried out in the name of religion. These attacks emphasise the recent findings of the Global Terrorism index, that religion has now become the main motive for terrorist acts. The report showed that the number of deaths due to terrorism increased by 60 percent last year, to 18,000. Additionally, it found that the number of annual deaths due to terrorist acts has increased five times since 2003.
However, we also know that some of the most virtuous and noble human acts are carried out in the name of religion. Many of the greatest moral reformers and activists in history were inspired by the principles of their religions, such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and William Wilberforce (who fought for the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807). Although I’m not religious myself, one of the contemporary figures I admire most is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has spent his life tirelessly campaigning for justice and against oppression, and embodies the Christian principles of compassion and forgiveness to the highest degree.
How can religion generate both such savagery and such nobility? How can the principles of religious faith be used to justify terrorism, and at other times encourage acts of great altruism and justice?
Two Types of Religion
To make sense of this, we need to distinguish between two fundamentally different types of religion: dogmatic religion and spiritual religion.
Dogmatically religious people are those who think that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. For them, religion isn’t about self-development or experiencing the transcendent, but about adhering to a set of rigid beliefs and following the rules laid down by religious authorities. It’s about defending their beliefs against anyone who questions them, asserting their "truth" over other people’s, and spreading those beliefs to others. For them, the fact that other people have different beliefs is an affront, since it implies the possibility that their own beliefs may not be true. They need to convince other people that they’re wrong to prove to themselves that they’re right.
Dogmatic religion stems from a psychological need for group identity and belonging, together with a need for certainty and meaning. There is a strong impulse in human beings to define ourselves, whether it’s as a Christian, a Muslim, a socialist, an American, a Republican, or as a fan of a sports club. This urge is closely connected to the impulse to be part of a group, to feel that you belong, and share the same beliefs and principles as others. And these impulses work together with the need for certainty—the feeling that you "know," that you possess the truth, that you are right and others are wrong.
At the root of these impulses is a fundamental anxiety and sense of lack, caused by our sense of being distinct individuals, existing in separation to other people, and a world "out there." This generates a sense of being "cut off," like fragments that were once part of a whole. There is also a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, caused by our insignificance in the face of the world. As a result, we need to "bolster" our sense of self, to strengthen our identity. And religion, and other belief systems, helps us to do this.
Dogmatic religion is dangerous because it creates an in-out group mentality. It encourages people to withdraw empathy and morality from other groups, to see them as inferior and ignorant. Other groups can be seen as general entities, rather than as collections of different individuals. And when two groups are thrown together, with their different beliefs clashing, different beliefs that are an affront because they suggest that their own beliefs may be wrong, conflict and warfare are always close at hand.
But spiritual religion is different. "Spiritual" religion promotes the higher attributes of human nature, like altruism and compassion, and fosters a sense of the sacred and sublime. "Spiritually religious" people don’t feel any animosity to other religious groups; in fact, they’re happy to investigate other beliefs, and may even go to other groups’ temples and services. They usually aren’t evangelical; their attitude is that different religions are suited to different people, and that all religions are different manifestations or expressions of the same essential truths.
In other words, whereas the purpose of dogmatic religion is to strengthen the ego, through beliefs, labels and group identity, the purpose of spiritual religion is the complete opposite of this: to transcend the ego, through compassion, altruism, and spiritual practice.
This is why religious people are capable of the most appalling acts, but also of some of the most noble. This is why religion produces both good and evil, both Osama Bin Laden and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The acts of savagery carried out in the name of dogmatic religion dominate the headlines, but we can take some comfort in the knowledge that at the same time, more quietly, some spiritually religious people are expressing some of the highest aspects of human nature.