Popes, politicians, preachers and pundits rarely have the honesty to admit having doubts. Saints have less hesitation because honesty, in spite of their illusions, comes more naturally to them. St Teresa of Avila and our own Mother Teresa of Calcutta both went through what St John of the Cross called “the Dark Night of the Soul”. It was excruciating for them to admit that they had doubts about the very existence of God and feeling, as did Christ on the cross, that they had been abandoned by His and their Father.
I consider doubt to be healthy, normal and necessary. “Dubito ergo sum” : “I doubt therefore I am”. Such doubt does not, of course, exclude – after an objective examination of the available evidence – arriving at a quasi-certitude that remains, however, open to new, contradictory evidence.
It is not politically correct at present to admit publicly that one is not sure about whether attacking ISIS in Iraq and Syria is right. A priest or theologian’s admission that he is no longer sure about Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist would result in his exile to a monastery, under formal prohibition to preach or share his doubts. Honesty in Parliament, the Church or the workplace is not always the best policy, if you want to keep your votes or your job.
In World War 2, the allies and even Hitler’s former ally become ours – the Soviet Union – were all agreed that the criminal Third Reich had to be destroyed, whatever the cost on both sides. National Socialism was plainly wrong, both totally mistaken and absolutely immoral. An American President in the recent past declared certain enemies of the U.S. to be the “Empire of Evil”, and righteously sought support for their destruction. Today it seems obvious to many that Islamic State must be destroyed militarily (as though that were possible, from the air or even on the ground). There are those, however, who disagree, and have doubts about the efficacy of such a strategy. Some, including me, have misgivings about the danger in the righteousness of the trigger-happy.
Sixty years ago a brilliant young student at Harvard wrote in his doctoral dissertation : “The most fundamental problem of politics is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.” This week’s TIME, which quotes Henry Kissinger’s thesis, equates this righteousness with “moral impulses and crusading ideals”. We can get carried away by our convictions and our certitude of being right. This applies equally to atheists and non-atheists. It applies to this Blog, both in its posts and in its comments.
I have suggested that there is a danger of over-reaction to the crisis in Iraq and Syria and, closer to home, the terrorist Jihadist threat of random beheadings, become credible since the four recent savage decapitations of American and British hostages and a French mountain-guide. To many if not most people, ISIS, like Nazism, incarnates evil and must be destroyed because that is the right thing to do. My fear is that once someone is beheaded on a street in Sydney or on the Champs Elysées or in Downtown, Anywhere, U.S.A., all Hell will break loose and righteous folk, especially those convinced that God is on their side, may over-react by attacking and assassinating innocent Muslims. Such “righteousness” must have limitations.
All of us, atheists and non-atheists alike, should recognize that it is irrational but also criminally and morally wrong to do harm to the Jihadists’ innocent coreligionists. Their murder would be as abominable as the barbarity of those who consider non-Muslims as infidels and Muslims who oppose the Charia as traitors to Islam, both of whom therefore deserve to die. Non-extremist Muslims in the Middle East are being slaughtered by the Jihadists. Muslims in our own countries may soon face another murderous enemy, non-Muslims like you and me.
I, like so many others, have serious questions about how to contain the threat of fanatical terrorism at home and abroad. But even though the United Nations Organization has approved the debatable strategy of armed attack against Islamic State, we must all, atheists and non-atheists, admit to ourselves the danger of our righteous over-reaction and the temptation to practise generalized anti-Muslim “vengeance”.
I have no doubts about the evil, inspired by Islam, that is Jihadism, no doubts about the blindfaithblindfolly of both Islam and Christianity. But outrage and righteousness in face of Islamic terrorism, whether on the part of atheists or non-atheists, are no excuse for violating the human rights of the innocent. Jihadists have forfeited such rights and deserve to suffer the consequences. Our Muslim non-terrorist neighbors do not.