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Sick Religion and the Boston Bombers


Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 04/23/13

Not all religion leads to violence

Regardless of where you looked, it seemed that the headlines this week were all screaming the same message: “Boston Bombers Motivated by Religion”. 

But nothing could be further from the truth. They weren’t motivated by religion; they were motivated by a spiritual and psychological sickness. This sickness can certainly be expressed in religious terms, but the same unhealthy spiritual and psychological dynamic is also evidenced in political, economic or philosophical ideologies. It is more correct, therefore to say that the Tsarnaev brothers were motivated by ideology rather than religion.

The core of the sickness is a self-righteous absolutism – the conviction that one’s beliefs and code of conduct are not only true, but that the world would be a better place if everyone else held those beliefs and observed that code of conduct. When this conviction is taken to the next stage, everyone else needs to be forced to hold those beliefs and behaviors. The next dangerous phase is when those who refuse to embrace the beliefs and behaviors are regarded as “the enemy”. The final stage of the sickness is when the ideologue decides that the enemy needs to be destroyed.

The dynamic of this sickness is clearly not limited to Muslim extremists; virtually all religions have their fanatical fringe where the sick progression from dogmatism to violence takes place. Furthermore, history shows that it is just as possible for a philosophical, economic or political set of beliefs and behaviors to begin with self-righteous absolutism and end in violence. Religious fanatics from many faiths have tortured and killed to enforce their beliefs, but so have atheistic dictators and devotees of quasi-religious nationalistic regimes like Nazism. The problem therefore, is not religion, but any form of self-righteous absolutism.

Whenever self-righteous absolutism holds hands with an ideology, violence will be the result. The violence may not be as horrific as random bombings and planned terror, taking instead the form of psychological or spiritual abuse, in which a person is pressured to submit their will and sacrifice their freedom to a tyrant or oppressive religious leader or family member. The violence may be economical or political, where a vulnerable person is dominated by a tyrant or a cult-like leadership group.

The dynamic of the sickness was outlined in M. Scott Peck’s classic work, The People of the Lie. Peck shows how self-righteous individuals will inevitably find a scapegoat onto whom they project their own darkness, fear and loathing. The scapegoat may be another family member, a colleague or another religious, ethnic or racial group. It may also be political or economic opposition. Because the darkness is really within them, but they can’t face it, the people of the lie magnify the evil of their supposed enemy more and more until the enemy needs to be destroyed.

The answer to the problem of false religion, then, lies in true religion. Religion is true when it tries to change the individual rather than trying to change everyone else. Religion is true when it brings about self-examination, inner transformation, real growth and self-actualization as a person. These things can be said of any religion, but Catholicism has a more explicit way of doing this.

At the heart of the Catholic faith is a simple transaction between an individual and God called “repentance”. True repentance is when a person honestly and openly and simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” At the heart of repentance is a rejection of self-righteousness. A truly repentant person accepts at the core of his being that there is something wrong with him, and while there may also be something wrong with the world, it is only within his power to do something about his own problems.

To be truly repentant is to be truly healthy. True repentance is realistic, ordinary and real, and it leads a person to the experience of true religion rather than an ideology based in self-righteousness.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Browse his books, visit his blog and be in touch at

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