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Religion’s Dark Side

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History bears out the fact that atrocities, in the name of religion, have happened as a result of man essentially being taken over beyond reason and act in ways that could not be comprehended to those not in that state of mind and belief.

An interesting, but no doubt controversial take on the dynamics and impact religion has and continues to make upon society.

An ant climbs a blade of grass, over and over, seemingly without purpose, seeking neither nourishment nor home. It persists in its futile climb, explains Daniel C. Dennett at the opening of his new book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” (Viking), because its brain has been taken over by a parasite, a lancet fluke, which, over the course of evolution, has found this to be a particularly efficient way to get into the stomach of a grazing sheep or cow where it can flourish and reproduce. The ant is controlled by the worm, which, equally unconscious of purpose, maneuvers the ant into place.

Mr. Dennett, anticipating the outrage his comparison will make, suggests that this how religion works. People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea “that has lodged in their brains.”

That idea, he argues, is like a virus or a worm, and it inspires bizarre forms of behavior in order to propagate itself. Islam, he points out, means “submission,” and submission is what religious believers practice. In Mr. Dennett’s view, they do so despite all evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend.

There appears to be a growing intolerance to hypothesis and alternatives opinions and depictions when it comes to the area of religion. The fallout regarding the Mohammed cartoons is just the latest incident involving how religion is factored into the societal scheme of life.

Mr. Dennett would like the coolness of reason to replace the commands of faith. The riots, though, show that at the very least, reason alone is insufficient. They are not just metaphorically iconoclastic in their challenge.

They are literally iconoclastic: attempts to destroy any trace of forbidden images or inspire fear in any who might object. They are the latest manifestations of battles that once took place within the West, particularly during the eighth century, when iconoclasm got its name. At that time leaders of the Eastern Church, perhaps inspired by Islamic and Judaic prohibitions against images, objected to religious icons as a form of idolatry.

Iconoclasm (from the Greek, meaning the “breaking of images”) was adopted as doctrine by Emperor Leo III (680-741) and his successors, and, for a century, led to the destruction of art, massacres, torture of monks and attacks on shrines, decisively widening the schism in the Church between Constantinople and the papacy.

The Iconoclasts of the eighth century and their successors during the Reformation were like the Taliban or rioting Muslims of the 21st. Except that that older violence occurred within a religion, inspired by theology.

Today’s Iconoclasts want to oppose all attempts to display forbidden images, whatever their provenance. And for a variety of reasons, many in the West readily defer. Last fall, for example, Burger King withdrew its ice cream from restaurants in Britain after receiving complaints from Muslims that the swirling illustration on the package resembled the name of Allah.

When religion takes on elements of fanaticism, there must be a counter element that brings reason back into the equation.

The issues, though, remain intractable and unrelenting. But it may be that the United States has already offered one kind of an answer, creating a society in which faith and reason continually cohabit in uneasy proximity, and iconoclasm is as commonplace as belief.

Is our nation’s oftentimes lack of reverence in societal actions somehow a saving grace when it comes to the dangers of becoming consumed by religion’s “dark side”?