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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Roger Cohen vs. religion?

Roger Cohen has a self-professed "angry" column in today's New York Times (the International Herald Tribune for those of us outside the US). In it, he laments the hateful use of religion by zealots across the world - in the United States, Afghanistan, and Europe - in light of Rev. Terry Jones's Qur'an burning and the resulting fate of
Joakim Dungel, a 33-year-old Swede slaughtered at the U.N. mission in Mazar-i-Sharif by Afghans whipped into frenzy through Jones’s folly.
There's plenty of blame to go around, and Cohen doesn't spare anyone: The IRA, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Islamophobia-peddlers in the Republican party, and right-wing European extremists all get a dose of Cohen's ire.

To be frank, I was particularly impressed by Cohen's admission to being a "nonbeliever." Being open about one's non-religious "preferences" is not a big deal to a Swede like myself (and yes, I am an atheist) but it is something few American journalists and pundits willingly flaunt. There are of course a few well-known professed atheists; Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens being the two front-figures of the atheist intellectual assault on superstition. But Cohen's atheism is more appealing to me: less firebrand polemics and more empathetic understanding of the extraordinary powers of faith to inspire a whole range of human emotions, behavior, and social practices; both good and bad.

In fact, my forthcoming book attempts to delve deep into Christian theology and the webs of meaning woven by Medieval to Reformation era Christians in their effort to make sense of their world. In doing so, I hope to have taken their beliefs seriously and to have approached them with respect, even while lifting forth the highly problematic aspects of their depictions of the members of a competing faith: Islam and its adherents.

Of course, the hateful use of religion is something atheists, agnostics, and most believers could all agree to denounce and combat, and there are atheistic as well as religious bigots. In Europe, anti-Muslim bigotry is a complex combination of (secular) xenophobia and sometimes secularized, sometimes expressly religious Islamophobic imagery, both versions of which have their roots in Medieval Christian polemics and apologetics. Perhaps my only qualification to Cohen's rightfully angry piece, then, is that the bigger "enemies" of peace and coexistence are bigotry and xenophobia in general, not just religious-inspired hatred. But I'm sure he'd agree.

Post Scriptum: Here is a tribute to Joakim Dungel, and here is a story in a Swedish English-language newspaper.
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