For much of humanity, religion offers solace, guidance and hope. Yet the events of Sept. 11 reinforce the difficult truth that religious fervor is often expressed through cataclysmic violence.
A quick survey of current world conflict, from Palestine to Kashmir to Sri Lanka, shows that much of it has a religious component.
History provides abundant examples as well, from the Crusades to the missionary zeal of colonial expansion.
A secure post-Sept. 11 future will be illusory without an honest assessment of this troubling relation.
Why do messages of peace and hope sometimes degenerate into mayhem and slaughter?
Since the terrorist attacks, scholars have flocked to the media to argue that the current penchant for violence by some Muslims is motivated by nonreligious factors, such as economic deprivation and political resentment.
Misreadings of the Koran rendered by maniacal political actors rationalize this violence, which has little to do with core beliefs, so we are told.
Yet these accounts neither explain why religion is the common denominator in so many violent episodes nor why religion is so easily exploited by worldly discontent.
The unpalatable truth is that religious violence can arise from the very nature of religious belief and the hopes that it inspires.
Most human beings concentrate their hopes on a stable and enduring happiness, which earthly existence--with its suffering, uncertainty and impermanence--cannot secure.
Given our limited human capacities, only a belief in something of unsurpassable perfection and transcendent power will sustain the hope that goodness will prevail, come what may.
For the most devout, religion is the only source of value, enveloping all of life in the glory cast by the divine light. God is experienced as pure and utterly distinct from the profane and ordinary, promising total fulfillment but requiring total surrender as well.
This experience of purity, totality and perfection is the source of religion's power and message of hope because it promises to overcome any threat to an enduring happiness posed by earthly existence.
Tragically, this experience of divinity can provoke rage as well as rapture.
When compared with a god of perfection who is the source of all value, all things not godlike can seem worthless and empty.
It is a very short step to view nonbelievers or the impious as the "other," so bereft of the qualities associated with the divine that no value can be assigned to them, and so no moral objection prevents their destruction.
The very source of hope--belief in the perfection and ultimate value of God--can be the source of the feelings and judgments that lead to religious violence.
Christian doctrine attempts to avoid this conclusion by proclaiming God's love for all creatures, suggesting that all of creation is part of the divine.
Yet that hardly solves the problem of religious violence, because such an unconditional love is attainable only by God. We humans, being imperfect, fall far short and cannot see the contemptible as anything but just contemptible.
The logic of religious violence can be avoided only if the devout see the secular world as having value that is independent of the divine. The imperfections of the world must be viewed as problems to solve rather than indignities to crush.
Religious differences must be respected as private commitments of conscience rather than pollutants to be purged.
The vast majority of religious believers acknowledge the value of the modern world and its secular institutions. A few do not, with results that have become all too familiar.
Hopes for peace in the Middle East and elsewhere rest on the unqualified acceptance of secular governments with secular aims, where conflicts over trade, resources and political power are negotiable.
The sacred cannot be bartered for something as profane as peace.