by Maarten Boudry
A man walking in the forest at night arrives at a house with lights burning inside. Looking through the window, he sees people jumping frantically and flailing about. Poor fellows, thinks the man: they are having seizures, or they must be terribly ill, or they have become insane. What the man doesn't hear is the music playing inside. The people are dancing and singing for a wedding. Gershom Gorenberg recounts this Jewish-Chassidic parable in his splendid book The End of Days on the danger of apocalyptic belief systems. Its morale? If you don't hear the music of faith, you will conclude that the dancers are out of their mind.
In our secular age, many have grown estranged from religion and turned a deaf ear to faith. All we hear is its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”, in the words of Matthew Arnold. Religion seemed like a distant echo of times gone by.
Now, alas, we can no longer ignore the ear-shattering blasts of suicide belts, the rattle of machine rifles, and the shouting of “Allahu Akbar” invariably preceding it. Terrorist attacks dedicated to the greater glory of a Supreme Being are being carried out across the world almost on a daily basis. The religious motivation of ISIS and numerous kindred groups is blatantly obvious for anyone who cares to listen to their faith-imbued songs. The atrocities are justified on the basis of religious scripture and tradition. They are intended as punishment for our decadent and sinful ways, for our refusal to accept the final revelation of Islam, and for our resistance against the divinely sanctioned caliphate.
Godless westerners, however, for whom God's name mainly evokes sweet childhood memories, find it exceedingly difficult to understand the mental universe of religious fanatics. Religion, in the eyes of these people, cannot be more than a convenient pretext for violence, a façade disguising true motivations. Besides, does anyone reallybelieve in those juvenile fantasies about a heavenly brothel with 72 dark-eyed virgins and wine that doesn't give you hangovers?