While all this debt ceiling craziness has been going on in Washington, a right-wing anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant sociopath killed over seventy people in Norway. I'm eschewing the link because you all know what I mean. This attack, by the way, is proportionally a worse attack than 9-11 (Norway is a much smaller country). Now, its important to consider the guy's ethnicity (undoubtedly Norwegian) and his religion (Christianity), because far too often we think of only Muslims committing terrorist attacks. As we have all witnessed, this is simply not the case.
Religious extremism, it seems, leads to violence. From the Crusades (where we Christians reintroduced the idea of jihad to the Muslim world), to al Qaeda, to the Islamist regimes in Iran and Afghanistan, we have a deep history of supposedly deeply humble people doing truly awful things. Heck, the Old Testament of the Bible applauds acts of genocide on several occasions.
As the same time, religion can elevate our lives and our actions to greater heights. I have been to Quaker prayer meetings that restored my faith in humanity, seen Christians risk life and limb to help their fellow man (one of my fellow parishioners at St. David's Episcopal Church was arrested in South Africa for helping Bishop Tutu fight against apartheid), and have heard of other acts of stupendous bravery, kindness, and humility inspired by deeply held religious beliefs.
So how is it that on one hand religion is so destructive and on the other appeals to our best instincts? Roger Williams believed it had to do with the mixing of Church and State. And in part, he was right. Most religious violence is committed whenever religion is mixed with politics. But its not just mixing politics with religion, its religious coercion that is so ugly. When a single faith is deemed "the only religion" and all must believe in it or perish, that is when its okay to kill those who disagree with you (about really tiny and stupid stuff - the Thirty Years' War was fought over whether God like people who have faith or people who have faith and do good stuff), blow up innocent civilians, and otherwise do terrible things.
But when people willingly submit to God, there is something beautiful about it. Faith is a glorious thing, and something that atheism simply cannot reproduce. Unfortunately, every time I allow my faith to be rekindled, I realize that for many, the beauty of faith is skin-deep.