The Psyche of Terror

Tom Flynn

Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche, by Shadia B. Drury (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, ISBN 1-4039-6404-1) 211 pp. incl. notes, references, index. Cloth $55.00.

Imagine a religious zealot who triggers the collapse of a monumental public structure, snuffing out roughly three thousand innocent lives. Were you thinking of Mohammed Atta and the World Trade Center? Think . . . older.

Think of Samson.

Samson’s fabled destruction of the Philistine temple is detailed in Judges 16:26–31, right down to the number of victims. If Mohammed Atta was a ter-rorist, wonders Shadia L. Drury, wasn’t Samson too? And if Samson was a hero. . . .

[I]f we accept the view that Samson was an instrument of God, then we must accept the view that Atta was also an instrument of God. We must remember that the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the same biblical God. To skeptics, this God appears wrathful and cruel, but to believers, He is just. That may be. But what is disturbing is the nature of His justice and its heroes. (p. 150)

Welcome to Shadia Drury’s world of discomfiting ideas, elegantly developed. A professor of political science and philosophy at Canada’s University of Regina, she may be best known for probing philosopher Leo Strauss’s influence on American conservatism. With her slim but forceful new book Terror and Civilization, Drury reconsiders the nexus between faith, politics, and terror, and launches an attack on small-b biblical religion whose frankness is bracing in a contemporary academic work.

The impulse toward terror—to seek control over others through tyranny and threatened violence—is a human universal. A surprising range of thinkers, Strauss among them, seem also to consider terror indispensable: “[T]he function of politics is not to uphold justice but to bridle evil. This can be accomplished only with even greater evil. Social order is founded on terror of sufficient magnitude to subdue all others” (p. 55). Drury rejects this antihumanistic ethos. On her view, far from being a precondition of civilization, terror is one of its most profound malfunctions. Its source is scriptural religion. If fundamentalist Islam nurtures the embrace of terror, so too do fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism.

Western readers know Christianity best, so Drury subjects it to devastating criticism. She reproaches the faith’s Augustinian characteristics: “the extreme deprecation of the world, the excessive otherworldliness, the radical transcendence, the profound dualism, the emphasis on original sin.” Followers

believe that truth and justice “belong to God. Fallen humanity cannot live according to the precepts of truth and justice. Threats of terror are necessary to bridle evil in this world” (p. 54–55). In Jesus’ demand that followers accept his teachings with their whole souls, Drury finds the seeds of tyranny: “The Christian conception of virtue as inner disposition of soul cannot infiltrate politics without making the latter totalitarian. . . . What the Inquisition and the secular dystopias of the twentieth century have in common is the primacy of belief and the desire to control not only action, but thought” (p. 71–72).

In deft, compelling prose, Drury bal-ances sound analysis, moral outrage, and confident wit: “Christians come to power by claiming to represent the Son, but once in power, they act like the Father” (p. 41). Sometimes there is waggish humor: “Luther acknowledges the truth about the God of the New Testament—namely, that He is much more wrathful than the God of the Old Testament—and he was no picnic” (p. 88).

If Drury ever disappoints, it is in treating the figure of Jesus naïvely. She seems to accept chosen Gospel stories and teachings at face value without regard for scholars’ doubts about their historicity. Perhaps she is treating Jesus as a religioliterary construct rather than a historical figure; her interest, after all, lies in how the ideas associated with Jesus influenced Western culture. If that is the case, one wishes she had said so. That small objection aside, Drury’s critique of Christianity is masterful:

[M]ost of the political crimes committed in the name of Christianity are the logical consequences of its doctrines. . . . Christianity encourages resignation to evil—either as the deserved punishment for sin or because this world is a matter of indifference. . . . [T]he Christian preoccupation with sin and the need for expiation has the effect of reconciling us to the suffering of the innocent. . . . Christianity has a profoundly singular conception of the good that encourages a militant and crusading spirit, while discouraging tolerance, plurality, and diversity (p. 69–70).

Drury’s final charge against Christianity is that it leads believers to internalize terror, locking them in combat against their own desires. No wonder they come to believe “that terror—spiritual, political, and psychological—is at the heart of the civilizing process” (p. 75). So influential is Christianity that not even its best-known opponents, Freud and Nietzsche, can escape its shadow. Freud “reinvented the austere Christian morality in a scientific guise,” and for his part, Nietzsche and his postmodern acolytes inverted Christian morality without challenging its structure, a Promethean revolt that only “makes evil heroic” (p. 99).

But the dangers Christianity poses are not unique. Quite the contrary, they are “echoed in the dramatic resurgence of religious fundamentalism in our time—Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, Hindu fundamentalism in India, and Christian fundamentalism in the United States.” Though often engaged in violent conflict, fundamentalist Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Christians share a craving “to use political power to establish the state of God” (p. 54). As for today’s so-called clash of cultures:

[T]he conflict between Islam and the West has its source in the sameness and not the difference between these two worlds. It is not a conflict between a secular liberal society and a religious, biblically inspired culture. Far from being opposites, both parties are informed by the same biblical morality and the same biblical self-understand-ing—and that is what accounts for the deadly nature of the conflict (p. 146).

Drury calls on society to transcend the biblical horizon, rejecting both the us-and-them naïveté that demonizes all opponents and the world-weary real-politik that acquiesces in every evil, particularly one’s own. “The first step,” she writes—a step fundamentalist thought cannot encompass—“is to acknowledge the plurality of the good” (p. 152).

Terror and Civilization is a welcome addition to the humanist literature from a wing of the academy that has lately tended to produce mostly postmodern voices. Shadia Drury’s plainspoken polemic is welcome. Sadly, the book’s high price will limit its reach. Highly recommended, but many readers will prefer to borrow it at the library or wait for the paperback.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche, by Shadia B. Drury (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, ISBN 1-4039-6404-1) 211 pp. incl. notes, references, index. Cloth $55.00. Imagine a religious zealot who triggers the collapse of a monumental public structure, snuffing out roughly three thousand innocent lives. Were you thinking of Mohammed Atta and …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.