(Free Inquiry - Winter, 2001-02)

By James A. Haught

Amid the shock and grief after the Sept. 11 terrorism attack, it was sickening to realize that the killers were impelled by religion.

Nothing except faith could make 19 young men prepare for years, pledge to commit suicide, sneak into America, take pilot training, pose as airline passengers, then gladly throw away their lives, just to kill 6,000 defenseless strangers who had done them no harm.

Handwritten Arabic papers found after the tragedy make it clear that the "martyrs" ardently believed that God would reward them in a magical paradise full of lovely female houri nymphs. Incredibly, they thought murder was a route to heaven.

Almost the entire world thinks religion makes worshipers kind and brotherly. Nobody wants to face the fact that it turns some believers into killers. However, this other side of religion, the unmentionable side, shouldn't be a surprise. It has been on display for centuries and millennia. Here's a brief overview of faith-based killing:

Many early civilizations sacrificed humans, mostly maidens and children, to multitudes of gods. The Old Testament records many massacres and executions by the ancient Hebrews, allegedly on orders from God. Even the first intellectual hub, ancient Greece, sentenced people to death for doubting the gods on Mount Olympus.

The arrival of Christianity supposedly was a step toward compassion - but the church bearing Christ's name soon began executing non-conformists and infidels. The Crusades were a series of ghastly wars against Muslims - and the crusaders warmed up for their eastward marches by killing "the infidels among us," Europe's Jews.

Later, "internal crusades" were waged in Europe against off-brand Christians. This led to creation of the Inquisition, which tortured and burned the unorthodox. From the Inquisition grew the witch-hunts, which did the same to countless women suspected of having sex with Satan, flying through the sky, changing into animals, etc.

The Reformation is viewed today as a transformation of Christianity - but it actually was a hideous convulsion of religious wars that slaughtered millions of Europeans. Along with it, the custom of massacring Jews, Anabaptists and other unpopular minorities flowered.

Meanwhile, jihads (holy wars) spread Islam east to India and west to Morocco and Spain, with an uncountable death toll.

When the Baha'i faith sprouted in Iran in the 1850s, its followers were decimated by Shi'ite Muslims.

During that same period, the world's worst religious war occurred, but few Americans ever heard of it. The Taiping Rebellion was caused by a Chinese convert who said God appeared to him, told him he was Jesus's younger brother, and commanded him to "destroy demons." He raised a holy army that killed as many as 20 million Chinese, before it was exterminated by defense regiments, including one led by British adventurer "Chinese" Gordon. Deadly religion plagued Gordon. He later led an Egyptian army fending off Islamic holy warriors in the Nile Valley, and was killed when the fanatics overran Khartoum.

Holy horrors didn't subside in the 20th century. Pogroms by Orthodox Russians sacked 530 Jewish communities and killed 60,000 residents during the Bolshevik Revolution. About the same time, a historic bloodbath occurred between Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks.

As for the Nazi Holocaust, numerous theologians have written that it was an outgrowth of centuries of Christian hostility that branded Jews as despised outsiders.

Three of India's Ghandis - Mohandas, Indira and Rajiv - all were assassinated by religious fanatics, as were Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin.

Jonestown, Waco, Heaven's Gate, the Solar Temple, the nerve gas planted in Tokyo's subway - all these were religious atrocities. So are shootings at abortion clinics ("pro-life" murder) and bombings at gay nightclubs.

Horrible ethnic bloodshed in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, Ulster, Lebanon, India, Indonesia and the like stems from the sociological phenomenon called "religious tribalism." Of course, these conflicts also involve politics, economics, culture, power-grabbing and other causes, but faith provides the labels dividing combatants into alien camps.

Thus the murderous side of religion has been clearly visible throughout history. Terrorist Osama bin Laden simply followed an age-old pattern when he recruited suicide bombers to shatter U.S. embassies and facilities, and issued a 1998 "fatwa" (religious edict) saying: "We call on every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to obey God's command to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can."

After the Sept. 11 horror, bin Laden was quoted as calling it "a punishment from Allah" upon the United States. He added that thousands of other Islamic volunteers "have vowed for jihad and martyrdom."

Why do such believers willingly kill themselves in order to slaughter unsuspecting civilians? It affronts all humane values. The answer evidently lies in secret letters found later in luggage of the conspirators. The documents exhorted the killers to pray fervently to God to be accepted as martyrs: "You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life."

Just before impact, they were instructed to shout, "There is no god but Allah." Another section, translated from Arabic, told the suicide attackers: "The nymphs are calling out to you, Come over here, companion of Allah."

The nymphs are calling out to you. Good grief - the murderers were impelled by adolescent male sex fantasies as well as by belief in a magical heaven.

Former National Security Council member Steven Simon, who is writing a book on faith-based terrorism, commented:

"This is not violence in the service of some practical program. It is killing infidels in the service of Allah. To a secular person, it's crazy.... There is one objective here, to kill an enormous number of people and humiliate the Satanic power. There is no claim of responsibility because there is only one audience, and that is God."

Simon is correct: It's crazy. But no crazier than most of the holy horrors that have been occurring since earliest recorded times.