Imagine there’s no heaven

This morning’s news of a State of Emergency in Brussels is chilling. Less so than the deadly attack in Mali, but one doesn’t need to be a mathematician to add up the increasing number of threats, deaths, and States of Emergency and conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Whether one calls it Daesh or the Islamic State, we are dealing with something worse than insanity. The killers are not insane. They do not qualify for a pass, as do those who commit criminal acts but are judged as “criminally insane.”

One wonders, then, what draws a young Belgian, Frenchman, or American to ISIL.

The late teens and early 20s are a peculiar stage of human development,  which may help explain, in part, the attraction of idealistic younger people to an organization that promotes an ideal society – the caliphate. Younger men in particular are looking for vocation -a call, a purpose larger than themselves – to which to give their lives and, if necessary, to die for.

In America in the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s those of us who were idealistic found a calling in the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement. We marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloane Coffin. We sought to stop the enemies of racism and war, to create a more perfect world without either.

At first the notion that it is idealism that draws young, disillusioned western men and women to ISIL strikes us as a contradiction in terms. But idealism is a grand vision worth living and dying for. That it is illusory or demented does not negate its essential character as idealism.

The 21st Century was supposed to be better than the 20th, the deadliest century in the history of the world. Clearly it is not, and any previous projection of a religionless world at peace with itself – remember john Lennon’s “Imagine” – has proven as unreal as the hope for peace and mutual understanding. Religion will not go away. The only question is what kind of religion we practice irrespective of whether one is Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Pantheist, or Animist. Do we practice it humbly or arrogantly, confessionally or righteously, as penitents begging for mercy for participation in the evil we deplore, or as righteous crusaders for the Kingdom of God or the Caliphate; as those who accept our mortality as a precious gift, or cheapen life by sacrificing others and themselves for their vision of eternal life?

In a recent presidential debate candidates were asked to name the greatest threat to national security. One answered Islamic terrorism. The other answered Climate Change.

Today defeating ISIL and its extremist counterparts seems more urgent than action on Climate Change, but Climate Change is the more important and longer-lasting threat. But there is a common belief that underlies both crises. It is the illusion that we are immortal, the consequent denigration of earthly life, this miraculous life we experience on this planet between our births and our deaths.

The lure of an afterlife is ludicrously represented by a French imam’s sermon warning children not to listen to music. Why? Because listening to music puts the children at risk of being “turned into monkeys and pigs.”

No monkey or pig has organized for killing in the name of heaven. Neither should we.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 21, 2015