Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2002 / 12 Tishrei 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Misuse of religion is timeless | It took the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to awaken many Americans to the unnerving truth that religion has a dark side.

The failure to grasp this before then revealed our naivete and gave us one more reason to reread The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Huck Finn is the greatest novel ever written by an American, and I try to reread it every few years just to see what it has to teach me this time.

Usually, I just dive into it and see what strikes me. But this time, with Sept. 11 in mind, I tried to pay attention to Twain's insights about religion.

Once again, Twain got it right, and what he wrote about religion nearly 120 years ago is worth thinking about as we try to understand how terrorists could do evil in the name of G-d.

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York, understood quickly the role religion played in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. This is what he said recently on the PBS "Frontline" show "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero":

"From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11 ... I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion."

It was, to be sure, a grossly violated religion, but it's clear that the hijackers, the suicide bombers, the people who follow Osama bin Laden - all of them were or are motivated by religion, or at least its aberration.

Twain understood that religion gets abused and drafted to defend evil behavior. He showed how that happens as he wrote about the relationship between Huck and the slave Jim, a glorious hero of the novel.

Huck Finn, in fact, is permeated by references to religion. In just the fourth paragraph of the opening chapter, we find the Widow Douglas reading Huck the story of Moses, but Huck lost interest when he discovered "that Moses had been dead a considerable long time."

Huck even gives voice to a common but profound misunderstanding of prayer, which he thinks works "when a body like the widow or the parson prays, but it don't work for me, and I reckon it don't work for only just the right kind (of people)."

Twain introduces the idea of God as Providence and then has that idea smack Huck upside the head as he wrestles with the morality of helping a runaway slave get his freedom - an act Huck naturally assumes Christianity would label a grave sin.

Listen to Huck's revelation and how clearly it shows what evil gets countenanced when religion gets misused: "And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whist I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so far and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared."

To his eternal credit, of course, Huck finally decided that freeing Jim was worth doing even if it meant - as he sincerely believed it did - that Huck would go to hell.

Huckleberry Finn is in many ways a guide to bad religion. No one who understands the book and its attacks on misguided faith would have been surprised that people still commit evil in the name of religion. And yet Huck believes some kind of faith community is important because, he says, you can't trust just your instincts or your conscience alone.

" ... a person's conscience ain't got no sense," he declares. "If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does I would pison him."

Sept. 11, 2001, offered more evidence of the truth Twain told us in Huck Finn: Misused religion almost inevitably lies down with evil.

Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

08/21/02: Where church and state are one How long can Saudi Arabia's puritanical version of Islam survive?
08/13/02: LETTER FROM CAIRO: Meet the Egyptian writer who provided foundation for radical form of Islam
08/08/02: Letter from Riyadh: Moderate Muslims must reassert control over Islam
07/31/02: Journey of discovery starts at Ground Zero
06/07/02: Life rebukes death's power
05/31/02: Reasonable doubts about executions
05/10/02: Business savvy for graduates
05/02/02: Exporting our exclusivity
04/25/02: Life's stories carry messages about values
04/19/02: Our life force's search for fellow life forces
03/27/02: Can corporations behave ethically?
03/19/02: Space Family Robinsons
02/21/02: Lock, stocks and bonds
02/14/02: In space, the dark matters
02/07/02: Train doctors to have caring hands and hearts
01/31/02: A different feel to my life and to my country?
01/24/02: How green is my universe?
01/17/02: The end is near, eventually
01/08/02: Important lessons arrive out of the past
12/19/01: Lost in the cloning debate
12/10/01: It's all in the name: Unraveling the mystery of Osama's whereabouts
11/19/01: Flying with damaged trust
11/02/01: Recent, recognized research is a hard nut to crack
10/31/01: Many paradoxes in life
10/25/01: Newly found planets show the cosmos is still strange
10/19/01: Just getting caught up
10/17/01: It was a time for tea and sympathy
10/08/01: What makes an authentic patriot?
10/04/01: It's OK to twist and shout
09/17/01: One precious life among many
09/13/01: Remember who we are
09/11/01: Sometimes all children need is shelter from the storm
09/05/01: Couldn't run or throw, but a hero just the same
08/28/01: Lesson for the scientific faithful: Some theories come with strings attached
08/27/01: When waste in space is a waste of space
08/21/01: In complex world, we lack tools to carve out understanding
08/09/01: Visited while asleep by gang of magical mischief makers
08/03/01: Recognizing the limits of one's capacity
07/27/01: We are more than the sum of our work days
07/12/01: Some stars, like some people, never shine
07/11/01: Our deeply embedded need for order
07/03/01: Not-so-famous tour explores not-so-rich neighborhoods
06/28/01: Driven to tell the truth about golf and government
06/25/01: When poetry becomes destructive
06/21/01: We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a word from deep space
06/14/01: Theory of revolution explains why some things get lost
06/11/01: Shamanic gewgaws
06/06/01: Charity begins at homes with lemonade stands
05/30/01: When are wars worth dying in?
05/23/01: Cruising along that bumpy highway
05/09/01: If you're in the write mood, wish the U.S. happy birthday
05/07/01: Killing McVeigh will wound us all
05/01/01: Dubya reinforcing negative GOP stereotypes?


Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved