Fort Hood and the Myths of SecularismThe popular media responses to the Fort Hood murders illustrate several secular myths regarding human beings and religion that dominate North American culture.
November 5, at the Fort Hood, Texas army base U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting spree that killed 13 people and wounded some 30 more before being brought down by the gunfire of a responding police officer. The popular media responses to this act of unbridled violence illustrate several of the secular myths regarding human beings and religion that dominate North American culture.
...myth: society can through following the right processes control human behavior and inoculate society from all undesirable outcomes.
First, initial commentaries in the popular media ignored and then dismissed religion as a motivating factor for Hasan’s killing spree at the Fort Hood military facility. To the extent that popular media discussed religion as a motivating factor it usually began with veiled accusations against people who allegedly badgered him for being a Muslim, thereby converting the perpetrator into a victim, and followed up with fretful prognostications of a “backlash” against Muslims.
The initial tendency to dismiss religion as a significant factor for the Fort Hood shooting spree illustrates one of the myths of western secular culture. Essential to the catechesis of secularism is that religion is insignificant for human life and that it is a dysfunctional epiphenomenon of a more fundamental human predicament. For example, people turn to religion because they are socially marginalized and they find comfort in religion in the face of a harsh and uncaring world. Violence committed in the name of religion according to secularism is not really about religion per se, but arises from deeper frustrations about oppressive foreign powers, poverty, and social exploitation. Samuel P. Huntington calls the popular penchant to marginalize religion in human conflicts a symptom of “secular myopia” (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 254).
In contrast to secularism, Christianity recognizes that religion is a defining and a powerful motivating force in peoples’ lives. Christianity also acknowledges that religion can at times and unfortunately foster violence and aggression. Indeed, a victim of religious violence is at the center of Christianity. Jesus Christ was the victim of a group of religious leaders who manipulated the local political and military power to crucify him. To be sure, a variety of motivating factors were at play, but it would be either facile or intellectually dishonest to pretend that religious ones were absent. Moreover, Christ’s early disciples did not deny the religious motivations of those who crucified him but neither did they use it as a pretext to retaliate with acts of violence. Thus, Christianity better accounts for events such as Fort Hood than does the popular secular myth that is dismissive of religion because it recognizes the central role of religion in human life.
The politically correct ethos that leads the popular press and government officials to ignore and/or dismiss Hasan’s religious faith as a key contributing factor to his killing spree is also disingenuous and perhaps cowardly. Christians should not needlessly stoke fires of controversy through incendiary rhetoric. However, Christians are called to speak the truth in love. The truth is, no matter how unsavory, that some people use religion to justify heinous evil.
A second secular myth on display in the popular media’s analysis of Fort Hood is that it was a product of a psychological pathology. The popular press identified second hand post-traumatic stress or pre-traumatic stress as the key causal factors in Major Hasan’s killing rampage. The fact that Hasan had never been in a combat situation nor would he have been even if deployed to Afghanistan, given rank and service type, is entirely lost on this popular explanation.
The reduction of horrific events like the Fort Hood massacre to a psychosis illustrates the secular culture’s inability to deal with the reality of human evil. Niall Ferguson states that during the twentieth century organized human violence killed between 167 and 188 million human beings (The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred, 649). The secular myth of the essential goodness of the human being coupled with the politically correct ethos that sequesters certain religious groups from scrutiny leads its popular purveyors in the media to explain a deliberate, calculated, and premeditated incident of mass killing as the product of an aberrant individual suffering from deviant mental and emotional states. Not only is this line of thinking more consistent with the secular myth of the inherent goodness of people, is it more soothing than accepting that there may be people not only in some far off country but also next door and in the grocery store aisle whose religious and political ideology may motivate them to kill and injure with impunity. No, our culture’s secular mythology simply will not allow one to admit such unsavory facts.
Christianity has a stronger grip on reality. Christianity affirms that human beings bear the image of God and thus have the potential for tremendous good, but believes that sin has corrupted all of us as well. Rather than pasting a patina of flattering platitudes of innate goodness over humanity that strains the pale of credulity of any serious observer of the brutal facts of human history, Christianity recognizes that human beings are capable of and indeed prone to perpetrate profound evil on one another. Moreover, and not without irony, Christianity proclaims that a victim of religious violence offers the way out of our tendency to proliferate evil and sin. Freedom from evil comes not through the law of “eye for eye,” but through the forgiveness of the one who asked his Father to “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Though whether Christian forgiveness in the face of persecution should inform State response to violence against its citizenry is an entirely different matter.
Also pervasive in the coverage of Fort Hood is a third myth that appears in the assumption that if we would just do things “right,” then nothing bad would ever happen. This is the naïve belief that if we follow and check-off all the procedural protocols and do steps A, B, C, then all the sharp edges of life will be eliminated. Thus, nearly ubiquitous in media analyses were cries that the “red flags” or warning signs went either unnoticed or ignored. Although investigations have uncovered a plethora of precedents that had they been taken seriously may have led to action that might have prevented Hasan’s killing spree (of course, the warning signs were piously overlooked so as to give proper obeisance to the cult of political correctness), this line of analysis nonetheless reflects the secular myth that society can through following the right processes control human behavior and inoculate society from all undesirable outcomes.
This fixation on “red flags” also connects with the previous myth that the killing was the result of an isolated individual who went off the rails of psychological stability. The logic is, if we had just noticed the “red flags” and implemented the appropriate intervention protocols—e.g., obligatory counseling and psychiatric medication—why then, of course, none of this would have happened. This way of thinking exhibits the secular hubris that human beings can solve all of their problems through the sheer strength of their own ingenuity, technological talent, therapeutic treatments, and pharmacological palliations.
Christianity does not deny the creative capacity and cultural fecundity of human beings, but it also insists that bereft of grace it ultimately comes to naught. Even a casual glance at the twentieth century and first years of the twenty-first century fortifies the Christian conviction that unbridled optimism in the potential of human beings to exorcise their individual and social demons is a fool’s wager.
Steven M. Studebaker is assistant professor of systematic and historical theology and Howard and Shirley Bentall Chair in Evangelical Thought at McMaster Divinity College, McMaster University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.