The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion (presentation paper)

Philosophical Scraps

Presented to the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin,


ABSTRACT:  The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion


This essay is a personal response to an article that appeared in 2007 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Five internationally known religious writers responded to the question, “What is the most dangerous idea in religion?” each offering his own nominee and some reasons for fearing that particular idea above others.  I wish to examine these opinions, and discuss:  what common themes emerge between two or more of these dangerous ideas, suggesting some common ground between the different perspectives presented in this article?  What common shortcomings do the responses share?  I seek to analyze all these ideas through the lens of my own nominee:  “The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion is My Own.”


The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion:  A Religious Perspective

         In 2007, journalist John Blake asked some of the leading religious writers of our day, “What is the most dangerous idea in religion?”[1]  The answers, published in an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are perhaps most surprising in their predictability.  Richard Land, a leading ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, said it was “Violence in the name of God.”  Mentioning radical Islam in particular, he pointed out that “It’s corrosive to public discourse to say if you disagree with me, I’m going to kill you.”  Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, an internationally recognized scholar of Islam, said the most dangerous idea was “Converting others to your religion.”  While he admitted that “I wouldn’t believe in a religion if I didn’t believe it to be better than other religions,” (and thus that endorsing a religion implied a sense of superiority and exclusive access to the truth,) he argued that seeking to share that truth with others is “a very loaded and dangerous idea” because it is “always embedded in power.”  The missionary or evangelist seeks to share the truth with others; and worse, he or she also brings in schools, hospitals and other resources.  Missionary activity is all about showing that your group has the resources to provide for needs and thus to show off power; as he says, “you don’t find Muslims coming to prosyletize in the United States.  But you do find Americans going to all sorts of Muslim countries.” Rabbi Harold Kushner, the liberal Jewish teacher and author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People (among other books), would presumably disagree with both his Christian and Muslim colleagues.  His nominee for most dangerous idea is “My religion is right.”  Whereas Dr. An-Na’im asserted that to believe in a religion is to accept that your religion is right and others are wrong, Rabbi Kushner argued that “You have to understand that religion is not about getting information about God.  Religion is about community.”  And of course, community is the very opposite of exclusivity, which both the Christian and the Muslim seem to accept is an essential part of religion.  To Rabbi Kushner, believing that your religion is right is dangerous because it undercuts interfaith dialogue.  My love for my religion need not lead me to despise yours, any more than my love for my wife should lead me to insult or despise your wife or your marriage.  We each have our own commitments, and we each share a respect and joy over them.

New Age spiritual writer and psychologist Wayne Dyer argued that the most dangerous idea is, “Follow our rules or else.”  Quoting Carl Jung, Dyer claimed that we all have an innate connection to God as parts of God’s creation; organized religion of any sort merely gets in the way of our direct experience of God.  Fellow PBS spiritual authority Deepak Chopra argued that the most dangerous idea is “A tribal view of God.”  In his quest to combine the insights of Western science with his Hindu spiritual upbringing, he has become convinced that while our understanding of the world and of technology has advanced greatly, our spiritual sensibilities remain both primitive and parochial.  Only by moving beyond our spiritual tribes to embrace the higher unity of all spirit will we be able to live in peace and grow to our full potential.

So, to sum up:  All these men (and all the writers interviewed for this article were men) agree completely:  That other guy is NUTS!  The Evangelical Christian says the Muslim is dangerous; while it is true that he carefully specifies that it is only “radical” Muslims who are dangerous, it is definitely a subgroup of Muslims, not Christians or anyone else or even “radicals” per se.  The Muslim says it is evangelists, missionaries, and specifically American missionaries who are dangerous; and of course, the most common are the Evangelicals, whose very name reveals that their religion is essentially connected with spreading the good news.  And it isn’t just overt spreading of the Gospel that is dangerous:  the hospitals, schools and other social work for which Southern Baptists are so well known, even in countries where they are forbidden by law to preach the Gospel or to accept spontaneous converts, is also part of the insidious plot against Islam.  The rabbi, living as a minority religion in mostly Christian or Muslim countries, sees the rejection of interfaith dialogue as the most dangerous idea.  The religious syncretist sees religious particularism as the most dangerous idea.  And the psychologist sees organized religion as dangerous, because it conflicts with the psychological, individualistic spirituality he represents.  Each one agrees that the most dangerous idea is the idea he sees dominant in some other group, and which is an external threat to his own group.

This is a political definition of a “dangerous idea.”  A “dangerous idea” is one that is dangerous to others, and particularly to me and mine.  It is not a religious definition.  When I read this article, I was struck immediately by this fact.  The Evangelical did not condemn the religious violence carried out by Protestant terrorists in this country, from the KKK and Know-Nothings to the Olympic Park Bomber and more.  He did not condemn the violent rhetoric of Christian Zionists and millenialists, who push for the ethnic cleansing of occupied Palestinian territories precisely because they look forward to the Rapture and the war between Israel and all its neighbors and the final, fiery cataclysm in which Satan, the U.N. (widely considered the tool of the Antichrist) and all other evils will be destroyed.  He did not condemn the common practice of mass prayers for the death of liberal judges and politicians.  Likewise, when the Muslim condemned religious conversions backed by imperial power, he did not suggest that Muslims should return the Christian lands of Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, North Africa, or Albania, all converted during times of total political and military control by richer, more sophisticated Muslim colonial powers.  He did not even condemn the widespread laws punishing anyone who might seek to return to the Christian or Jewish faith of his or her earlier ancestors.  If your father or grandfather became a Muslim to gain economic resources, you’re stuck; if you duplicate that decision by seeking to convert from Islam, you’re both a victim of neocolonial oppression and a criminal deserving imprisonment or possibly death.  Those who reject organized religion see organized religion as the most dangerous idea; those who belong to minorities see the majorities as dangerous, and so on.

The religious definition of “dangerous” is different.  My immediate reaction was shaped by my Christian background; but I believe most religions have similar notions.  The Christian formulation is this:  Fear not what can kill only the body and then can do no more; fear that which can destroy the soul.  (Matthew 10:28)  The terrorist’s bomb cannot kill my faith.  The missionary cannot snatch my faith from me, if I have it at all.  The church or mosque cannot rob me of my personal connection to God unless I choose that it should; indeed, historically these have often spawned anti-establishment mysticism and spirituality.  The only thing that can destroy my soul is my own idea.  The only religiously dangerous idea is my own.

Seen in this light, must we reject all the nominees for “the most dangerous idea in religion”?  No, but we must reinterpret them.  How is violence in the name of God dangerous to the one who practices it?  How is the notion of evangelism dangerous to the evangelist?  How is the tribal view of God dangerous to the members of that tribe?  And so on.  How am I harboring those ideas that I see as dangerous?  As Paul writes, “you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself?  You who say, “Thou shalt not steal,” do you steal?” and so on.  (Romans 2:21)  That is what is sadly, predictably lacking in the five arguments in this article; and it reflects something universal in our tendency to think about religious matters.  We tend to judge easily and well the sins of others, particularly when we are ourselves in physical danger or emotional discomfort.  We have more difficulty seeing how we ourselves may engage in those same sins.  And perhaps most difficult of all, we often fail to appreciate that the most dangerous ideas of others have their sense in the lives of those others.  To Rabbi Kushner, “My religion is right” is the most dangerous idea; to Dr. An-Na’im, it is a natural and even inevitable assumption of any religious believer, in itself only dangerous if it leads to missionary activity; which to Dr. Land, it is a fulfillment of the Great Commission, given by the Divine Word Incarnate that we should make disciples of all the world (Matt. 28:19-20), so that refusing to practice this “dangerous idea” is disobedience to God; and so on.

When I conclude that the most dangerous idea in religion is my own, I must in turn hesitate to judge others too harshly.  After all, I was taught to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”  (Matt. 7:1)  Quite simply, what others think or say may be wrong, but it is not the most dangerous thing, since any external threat can at worst kill me.  Of course, on the other hand, if everyone thought this way there would be no “dangerous idea” in the sense of being dangerous to others.  As long as I am more worried about my own religious intolerance, my fear of the intolerance of others is somewhat tempered.  As long as I am worried about my own tendency to impose my truth on others, my fear of the missionary from another faith is mitigated.  Quite simply, when I remember that I am a sinner, flawed, and quite frankly a danger to myself and to others, I have a lot less time to judge others.  This could in turn have enormous social consequences.  For example, think how much quieter the debate over same-sex marriages would be if only those who had always been faithful to their partners were allowed to speak?  Anyone who has been divorced, or committed adultery, or cheated on a boyfriend or girlfriend, or even considered it, (since, as Jesus said, to look at a woman with lust is to commit adultery; see Matt. 19:10) all of these should just keep quiet about family values and the meaning of marriage.  Instead, each of these will think about what marriage means to himself or herself, which will probably lead them to agree with the disciples of Jesus:  If that is what marriage is, it is better not to marry at all!  Then the problem would no longer be a religiously dangerous idea at all, but only a political question of how best to live together.  This might not solve the problem, but it would at least calm it down.

Perhaps, though, in my rush to condemn the judgers I have myself judged them.  Instead of pointing out what is wrong with the five nominees for Most Dangerous Idea, perhaps the better path would be to see if there is anything they agree on.  Four of the five express some fear of some sort of compulsion in religious matters.  This suggests the importance of freedom of conscience.  Everyone longs for freedom of conscience for himself or herself.  And all five share a common fear of intolerance, or more broadly, close-mindedness.  The tribal person, or the violent one, and so on are all close-minded.  They are not just certain; they are closed to any possible dialogue or new information.  This close-mindedness lies behind the willingness to compel others, whether by threat or institutional power.   So I suggest that the most dangerous idea, the cardinal dangerous idea is, “I know what I know.”

The person who says, “I know what I know,” seems to be stating a tautology—-which would be self-evidently true, empty and thus harmless.  But in fact, “I know what I know” generally means, “I know what I know and nothing can change my mind; I am inflexible, close-minded, impervious to facts and logic.  And why should I change, since I am right, and I know it?  And why aren’t you agreeing with me, since I know I’m right and therefore you must be wrong?”  And this idea has the added strength that even the person who holds it may think he or she is merely stating a tautology.  I’ve known a fair number of close-minded persons; I can think of only one who consciously and directly said, “I’m close-minded.”  Even to say this implies an element of self-criticism or at least self-awareness that is already gazing at the path of understanding, even if it fears to tread it.  “I know what I know” requires no self-awareness.  It sounds, at least to one’s own ears, like a claim to knowledge and wisdom.

“I know what I know” is, of course, true in a sense, and true of every person equally. In Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus says that the difference between the simple person and the wise one is that the simple one knows, and the wise one knows that he knows or knows that he does not know.[2]  The wise one, like Socrates, knows that his or her knowledge has limits and falls short, and that true wisdom is often more aspirational than actual.    Faith is not knowing, he says; faith is floating over 70,000 fathoms and still being joyful.[3]  That sort of believer does not dare compel or impose upon or judge another person, since when one’s own faith is so much work, who has time to look over someone else’s shoulder?  At the same time, this sort of believer has that joy, and does not succumb to the dictatorship of relativism.  I know what I know, which is my own experience; I don’t know what I don’t know, which is yours.  I know I don’t know what I don’t know; this is humility.

As I said, the original article has a political tendency:  what are the five religious ideas most dangerous to others, and specifically to me, the person who is asked?  As a political principle, “I know what I know” seems pretty powerful and pretty destructive to the body politic. Why ask the considered opinions of all sides, when you can simply shout everyone down and impose the right answer?  Why listen, when you’re right?  This isn’t a left-wing or right-wing observation; I’ve seen avowed Marxists and avowed Libertarians argue the same way.   “I know that I don’t know” would be a powerful political principle as well.  It’s hard to push for humility, of course.  It’s hard to be decisively uncertain.  It is much easier to embrace the self-confidence of invincible ignorance, to choose one’s preferred side and to ram it home without further let or hindrance from facts.  Sadly, though, what is so helpful to ensuring victory in a debate may be counterproductive if the goal is to ensure the prosperity of our nation, or survival of our species.  We need truth to survive and to thrive, and to find truth we need to be open to the truth, and that means humility.

So I suggest that the most dangerous idea in religion is, “I know what I know.”  It is dangerous in that it is dangerous to our social and cultural life together, since it fragments us into impermeable echo chambers where we listen only to the sounds of our own voices.  It is dangerous to our survival and vitality, since it gives us a ready defense against reality when facts or logic conflict with our preferences.  And it is truly religiously dangerous, threatening the soul and not merely the body.  Instead of floating joyful over 70,000 fathoms of water, “I know” believes the water is at most a few feet deep.  If “faith is hope for that which is not seen,” then “I know” is the death of faith, and thus of the believer as well.  And “I know what I know” seems to embrace the concerns of all the other nominees for Most Dangerous Idea.  It is the wellspring of them all.

Presented to the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin on April 10, 2011.  All rights reserved ; permission to reprint by the express written consent of the author only.

[1] John Blake, “Faith and Values:  What’s the most dangerous idea in religion?”  Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 30, 2007, main edition (…/WhatsTheMostDangerousIdea06307.pdf)

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 181

[3] Postscript, pp. 140, 204; see also Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way:Studies by Various Persons; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1988) pp. 444, 470

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