During a recent public debate over the role of science and religion in history, Dr. Steven Weinberg remarked that, although religion had done some good in the world, “its influence on balance has been awful. 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.” A millennium that has produced several Islamic jihads, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust would seem to provide much evidence in confirmation.
For most of the past century the communist challenge overrode and diminished other contestations. Nonetheless, the vitality of faith-based movements in politics was amply demonstrated by the resistance to communism of elements of the Catholic Church in the satellite states of Eastern Europe, and by the organization of Muslim fighters in Afghanistan. Even before the end of the Cold War, the power of religion-based politics exploded over Iran and swept away the secular, modernizing regime of the shah. Now in its twentieth year, the Islamist state in Iran, by act and example, injects a puritanical, political Islam into issues of governance in the states of large Muslim populations around the world. Despite much academic argumentation over the causes of contemporary violence between and among states in the world today, it seems rather clear that many demonstrable fears and hatreds are linked to religious beliefs and perceptions. While these emotions are linked to ethnic and national identities, their religious content renders them exceedingly difficult to deflect or compromise.