When news broke of a bomb detonation in downtown Oslo, Norway, many initially assumed it was the work of Islamic terrorists. When later reports came in that a shooting rampage had also occurred on an island just off the coast of Norway’s capital, some believed Europe was witnessing a Mumbai-style attack. Later, however, the world discovered that these atrocities, which have claimed the lives of at least 93 people, were the work of a blond-haired, native-born Caucasian Norwegian man named Anders Behring Breivik. Considering that a great deal of recently publicized terrorist activity has been linked to Islamic extremists, the assumption that the Norway attacks were connected to militant Islam was perhaps understandable; it was also completely wrong.
This horrific slaughter of mostly young people highlights the fact that extremism is not confined to Islam. The man suspected of being behind the worst mass murder in Norway since World War II has been described as a “Christian fundamentalist with right-wing views.” In a 1,500-page manifesto published on the Internet the same day of the attacks, Breivik rambled against “Muslim dominance” and called for a European civil war. But Anders Behring Breivik is no more a Christian than Osama bin Laden was a Muslim; his murderous actions run counter to the teachings of any modern faith. In people such as Osama bin Laden or the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the seed of religious fundamentalism blossomed into violent intolerance; it’s very possible that this is also the case for Anders Behring Breivik.
From Hindu extremists in India to both sides in the fight over the “Holy Land,” this fundamentalist seed is unfortunately too common around the world. It is possible that the suspect in the Norway attacks is legally insane, but there are millions of sane religious people around the world who often stray dangerously close to fundamentalist extremism. A person who believes that “every single word” of the Bible, Koran, Torah or any other holy book is “literally” true runs the risk of allowing themselves to be swept up in madness. Christianity is a beautiful religion, but Jesus Christ told his disciples in the book of Matthew that, “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Jesus also is quoted as saying, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Few think that Jesus was recommending mutilation or violence; these words instead have a deeper spiritual meaning meant to be pondered by mature believers. However not all believers are so mature; those who interpret scripture literally are found in many nations, including of course, the United States.
A Gallup poll taken on the hundredth anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth in 2009 showed that only 39 percent of Americans completely accept the validity of the theory of evolution despite plenty of scientific evidence ― including modern DNA research which shows the degree of “relatedness” between species. Those with strong religious beliefs were the least likely to “believe in” evolution. Another Gallup poll from late 2010 revealed that 40 percent of Americans believe that humans were created by God within the past 10,000 years. While it might seem inconsequential, rejecting evolution has far-reaching consequences including seriously hindering the understanding of science, and also in its extreme form, the acceptance of racism. If we did not evolve from a common ancestor and then developed skin tones as a result of slow adaptions to the various climates humans migrated to, then why not accept the outlandish ideas articulated by some Christian teachers that Africans are black because one of their ancestors was cursed by God for some offense committed thousands of years ago?
It’s time for a more aggressive approach towards fundamentalism. Religious leaders need to be more explicit in their condemnation of fundamentalist ideas and point out the places in their own faiths that either need to be reinterpreted for the modern world or are meant to be believed spiritually rather than literally. Religion can provide strength, healing, comfort and a motivation to do incredible acts of charity. But misguided perversions of religion based on fundamentalist ideas can develop into beliefs that can lead to acts of horror.