“Imagine finding yourself in a game of chicken involving two cars of equal size, both traveling at great speed, where a collision means severe injury or death.”
Here’s the question:
“What should you find out about your opponent beforehand?”
Maybe you should ask about your opponent’s religious faith.
That’s the stunning opening to Dr. Ariel Glucklich’s new book, “Dying for Heaven: Holy Pleasure and Suicide Bombers—Why the Best Qualities of Religion Are Also Its Most Dangerous”
The book is more than 300 pages of gripping analysis about the inner motivations—the high-octane rocket fuel—within religion. Most of the book is devoted to outlining Glucklich’s conclusions, using a wide range of historical examples, about the powerful pleasure factor within our spiritual traditions. At its most intense, this can produce ecstatic joy—the experiences of great saints we celebrate, for example.
Then, Glucklich tries to sort out which of these pleasurable forces can also lead to self-destructive decisions. Once again, “self destruction” isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes saints decide to sacrifice their own lives for the greater good. (Take a look at our earlier story about the Four Chaplains in WWII.)
However, in a tragic number of cases, religious zealots today—emerging from virtually every faith—have used that fuel to destroy not only themselves but innocent people as well.
You may think you’ve heard this argument before. Often people say: “Religion can go bad.”
Glucklich’s book is a far more important and sophisticated analysis than that. He’s calling for a whole new body of research into the many ways that religion’s ecstatic pleasures can be triggered toward cataclysmic ends. When does the noble, mystical saint become the ugly, world-shattering killer? How does this potentially explosive pleasurable force emerge from religious experience?
Or, boiled down into a simple metaphor: If you’re playing a game of chicken, what do you want to know about the driver speeding toward you?
You should find out whether his ecstatic faith might be urging him to plow into you full force!
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH
DR. ARIEL GLUCKLICH on “DYING FOR HEAVEN”
DAVID: First of all, let me ask you about your religious orientation. I know that you were born into a Jewish family in a Kibbutz not far from Nazareth in northern Israel. Today, you’re Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and you’re also a specialist in Hinduism as well as the psychology—and the anthropology—of religion.
You’re a leading expert on the forces within religion that shape our lives and our world—especially those forces that may become destructive. This is your second book on that theme.
In your own life, though, do you think of yourself as a religious skeptic? Considering all the evidence you’ve seen of religion’s destructive power, I’m guessing that’s led you to a pretty skeptical view of faith. Is that fair to say?
ARIEL: Well, I’m not an atheist. Or, another way to say it: Secularism isn’t my political philosophy or my approach to life. The overall quest means a great deal to me and, as I understand that quest, it requires a questioning of all the structures of faith and the related mental constructions as well.
DAVID: I find your work fascinating, because you are exploring some of the deepest mysteries of faith.
Your key argument in this new book is that you want us to rethink our first reactions to news of suicide bombers. What religious people do, immediately, is condemn the act and say that it has nothing to do with religious faith.
You’re saying that such crimes are horrific and they are twisting classic religious beliefs into something tragic. But you’re also saying: Many suicide bombers actually are running on spiritual fuel that is produced at the heart of religion itself.
Am I reading your book correctly?
A: That’s a good way to put it. To expand on this in different terms, I would say: We’re talking about a continuum here. Set aside for a moment the morality of the violence and the aggression we see from suicide bombers. If we look at their motivations closely, we see that many of them are moving along a religious continuum. Some of them are drawing on motivations within religion that are much like the experiences of saints or mystics or devotees who were inspired to become extremely altruistic.
DAVID: Right. This religious fuel has led many men and women to amazing acts of self-sacrifice to help others and for the greater good of the world. The week this interview will be published is the anniversary of the deaths of the famous Four Chaplains, who sacrificed their lives in World War II to help save as many men as possible from a sinking ship.
We don’t know if those four chaplains had a deeply mystical experience as they perished, but somehow their faith led them to these acts of heroic self sacrifice.
Now, in your book, readers will find passages about saints. You write about men and women who we usually regard in a very good way—people like Evelyn Underhill and St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
If I understand your book correctly, you’re saying: Let’s set aside questions about their theology. And, let’s set aside any questions we may have about whether their visions of God really were true. Let’s focus on the sensations they are describing in their mystical experiences. The fact is—these people wrote about an experience of love that was welling up inside of them in these powerful, pleasurable experiences that they considered Divine. They were experiencing a powerful pleasure.
Am I reading you correctly?
ARIEL: You are. They did experience a pleasure in their faith. Now, it’s critically important that one understand what I mean by that word “pleasure.” Don’t mistake it for the way we normally would use that word.
DAVID: Here’s a line from your book. You write: “Happiness or joy is the gorilla in the room when we talk about religion.”
Talk a little bit about that—this idea of people finding deep pleasure in religion. People often joke that religion really is a source of guilt, obedience, submission. I just saw an episode of the comedy “30 Rock” in which religion was described, once again, as a source of lifelong guilt.
You’re saying there’s also a whole lot of powerful pleasure in religion.
ARIEL: Of course, making a claim about any single motivation can immediately be countered with other arguments. Sure, we’ve all got friends who talk about Jewish guilt or Catholic guilt—things like that. Or, in a shallow sense, you can say that the motivation for going to church is to solidify families and to produce a general rise in contentment. Statistics do suggest that. There are many motivations for going to church.
I’m talking about a deeper motivational level here. For every person who may complain about guilt, there’s someone else who will talk about their religious experience as uncovering a pleasure in their lives where guilt and fear are no longer motivators.
DAVID: I want to encourage readers to actually get your book and read all 300-plus pages to understand your whole analysis here. But, in a nutshell, you’re saying something that’s quite troubling:
Suicide bombers often are running on this same high-octane pleasurable fuel of religion—even as they do very bad things with it.
If that’s the case, then I would say this a very dangerous era.
We just featured an interview with Harvard’s Dr. Harvey Cox on his new book, “The Future of Faith.” He argues that most Americans now feel freer than ever to choose their own self-directed spiritual pathways.
If more and more people feel free to break away and follow their own paths, then there are fewer buffers, fewer traditional religious guides to keep people comfortably on track.
So, doesn’t this produce a more dangerous era?
ARIEL: Yes it does. The self questing is very often tied to a more gratifying personal approach to religious discipline.
To the extent that traditional religious experiences are group oriented, then this rise in individual seeking undermines the group orientation. You can become separated from your family, from friends, from neighborhoods.
In the Middle East today, when we see these young people who seem to throw away their lives so easily, we’re really seeing a breakdown of family, clan, neighborhood and village. These group structures are disintegrating. As they break down, these communities can generate these socially unhinged individuals who are susceptible to being used religiously.
At the same time, this all-too-common willingness to commit suicide is a part of this shopping around for spiritual identity in a bizarre and twisted sort of way.
The inducement that draws people into military or paramilitary organizations often is pseudo-religious or maybe even truly religious. These groups that draw them in may be gunning for some kind of apocalyptic dream, but the essential problem that produces people suitable for such inducement is the breakdown of communities.
That’s where I see the danger in this.
Let me give you an example. In a study of Palestinian suicide bombers, one of the individuals was a woman in her late 20s who had no prospects for marriage and she started spiraling toward the outside of her social world as she finally got involved in this activity.
Or, a young man whose father may have shamed the family by being accused of collaborating with the Israelis might get involved in this kind of extreme activity because his family has moved away from the center of his community.
You see a lot of that.
DAVID: You’re mentioning Palestinian suicide killers here, but your book also has a chilling passage in it about the motivations of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the doctor who killed or wounded a large number of Muslims in a horrific suicide attack with guns in Hebron.
You give us examples from various religious traditions.
As I was reading your book, I kept thinking about Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, the group that released poison gas. Last year, we recommended two documentaries about the followers of that group. Pretty clearly, I think, the Aum Shinrikyo members would be prime examples of your theories.
ARIEL: When researchers sit down with people who are moved to these extreme acts and try to study them, often we hear certain verses or lines quoted to us from scriptures as their motivation. I’m saying that these verses are not the real fuel here. There is something much deeper happening in their lives.
DAVID: I’m going to give you the last word here—from a passage out of your book. You write:
There is something unique about the religious life, an emotion or affect that is so basic and so compelling that it makes being religious almost irresistible. It is an attractive feeling, and this is precisely what makes religion so dangerous. I have argued that, above all other institutions in human history, religion has produced the most effective technology for manufacturing happiness out of the raw material of pleasure. By virtue of its unique psychological methods and moral authority, religion—and this is true for all the major religions of the world—can discipline its members to renounce simple pleasures and reach for higher-level enjoyments. …
Unfortunately, in some situations refined religious joys will drive actors to choose self-destruction over defeat or even compromise. Martyrs or members of spiritual groups, following the dictates of supreme and lasting joy, will decide that self-annihilation is more appealing than a compromised life. They may actually feel no rage, display no aggression, and even love their enemies. …
If this odd form of behavior, which is as archaic as the roots of religion and as contemporary as suicide bombers, is driven by pleasure, it can be diagnosed by scientists and stopped by other forms of pleasure. …
If the basics are correct, and if the theory is sound, this book may give researchers a few tools for devising methods to neutralize religious self-destructiveness.
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