Few are brave enough to say so, but more than a few are thinking it: religion is the culprit in the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.

Wiley Miller's editorial cartoon, Non-Sequitur, in the October 1, 2000 Journal-News humorously depicted this theme. It pictured various religious types arriving in hell as a horned, pitchfork-bearing devil says, "Ironically, if it weren't for religious fanaticism, we'd be out of business."

Bill Maher, on the September 17th episode of Politically Incorrect, blatantly blamed religion for the attacks. "Religion is extremist," he said, adding that people believe "a lot of stupid Muslim tricks and stupid Christian tricks."

Andy Rooney, in his September 23rd commentary on 60 Minutes, opined, "our enemy is . . . . the Taliban, the fundamentalist Muslim ruling party. . . . Its leaders make Jerry Falwell look like an atheist. They tore down the great Buddhist statues because they're intolerant of any other religion. In August, they arrested 24 people for teaching Christianity. The 19 men who killed themselves killing 7,000 people didn't think they were evil. They were religious. They were assuring their entry into heaven by getting in good with Allah." Rooney's point--if he had one- seemed to be that the true culprit was religion, a rather elusive opponent.

Maher and Rooney may be kindred spirits of Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who once said, "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Ah, but there's a problem, a self-contradiction, in Mr. Weinberg's statement. Without religion--without a transcendent revelation or vision of life and morality--the categories of good and evil, the line between moral and immoral, the distinction (in the words of Reuters News Service) between a "terrorist" and a "freedom fighter" evaporate. Or good and evil become simply a matter of evolutionary necessity (because the propagation of the species is the object of evolution, it is "good" for the strong to survive . . . and the weak to perish).

But "religion," per se, is not the real culprit in the September 11 attacks. If you're looking for somewhere to point the finger, let me suggest three directions:

1. Evil men. President Bush was correct to label those who sponsored, planned, and executed the September 11 attacks as "evildoers." People who attack, maim, and kill innocent men, women, and children can be called nothing less. Not misguided. Not freedom fighters. Not victims of U.S. policy. As the ancient Scriptures revered by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, proclaim, "From evildoers come evil deeds" (1 Samuel 24:13, NIV). There are evil forces at work in the world; some human beings resist them, and some assist them.

2. Bad religion. Sure, Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists wrap themselves in a particularly virulent stream of Islam, but (though they seemed slow to do so at first) some Muslim clerics have recently spoken out to condemn his actions and his interpretation of the Q'uran, more or less agreeing with President Bush's claim that "those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah." I am no expert on Islam, but I fervently hope that bin Laden and his ilk are no more representative of true Islam than the crusades were a reflection of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Whether one cloaks one's actions in the teachings of Mohammed, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or any other religious figure, it is bad religion to kill the innocent . . . or acquit the wicked (Proverbs 18:5).

3. Politics. From all reports, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are not pursuing primarily religious goals. Their purposes are political: to destroy western culture and governments and replace them with a culture and government of their own choosing. As Egypt's former interior minister, Hassan Alfi, once told journalist Judith Miller regarding acts of terrorism in his own country, "There is nothing in the Koran that justifies such murder. These men are using Islam as a cover for their political goals." Once again, President Bush was correct, in calling Al Qaeda "the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century." People who consider religion the "root of all evil," overlook the torture and annihilation of more than one hundred million people (in the last century alone!) by Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung, atrocities committed in the name, not of religion, but of atheistic politics.

It may be convenient to cluck our tongues at the evil influence of religion, per se, on modern society . . . but it's inaccurate. Evil men, cloaking themselves in bad religion, are pursuing political ends by using a wicked weapon: terrorism. We only aid such evil when we lay blame where it does not belong.

Copyright © 2005, Bob Hostetler