- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

Two commentators on religion disagreed yesterday on whether monotheism, with its idea of one God's will, leads to the violence seen among Muslim followers of Osama bin Laden.

"There is no greater sanction for human extremism than God himself," said Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic and contributing editor to the New York Times magazine. "I'm so tired of this president going around saying, 'Any religion you believe in is better than none.'"

He said Mr. Bush erred in saying the war on terrorism is not a religious war because "it is basically a struggle of modernity against pre-modernity," a past time when religion ruled nations.

In response, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the Catholic editor of First Things, a policy journal, said religion is neutral.

"Religion itself is not a good thing or a bad thing," he said at the debate, sponsored at D.C.'s Madison Hotel by the Hudson Institute and the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. "The problem is what a person has a deep religious conviction about."

He agreed that "this is a religious war," referring to a clash of tolerant and intolerant faiths such as extremist Islam. But he hoped that "Islam will find an Islamic way to engage in modernity" and reform itself.

Meanwhile, he said, Mr. Bush is diplomatically wise to portray the conflict as a political one so that Islam "may enter the liberal democratic experiment."

The debate, the first of a five-part series the two organizations will hold on important issues after September 11, reflects a wider discussion on what political scientist Samuel Huntington called in the mid-1990s a "clash of civilizations."

Mr. Huntington briefed the White House on his analysis in November.

Mr. Sullivan said that the Enlightenment tradition that traveled from Britain to America strictly separated religion from politics to avoid religious wars and allow personal liberty.

"Religion has a uniquely dangerous aspect to it" compared with other human passions, Mr. Sullivan said. "Make no mistake about it, Osama bin Laden was a religious figure, and so was Torquemada," the Catholic priest who was Grand Inquisitor of the 16th-century Spanish Inquisition.

Father Neuhaus said the violence spawned by some religion pales next to Marxism, Nazism and Maoism, whose ideological passions killed more the 100 million people in the 20th century.

"In their militant secularism, they were religious," he said, arguing that good or bad belief determines violence. "They were all functionally religious visions."

Father Neuhaus is known for his book "The Naked Public Square," which argues that if a respectul religious pluralism is not allowed in public life, a secular ideology will take control.

He cited an encyclical by Pope John Paul II that said Catholicism should evangelize the modern world but in a way in which, politically, "the church imposes nothing; it simply proposes." He suggested that Islam could develop similar approaches to modernity.

Mr. Sullivan entered the debate in October with a New York Times Magazine article on the faults of monotheism. Once active in the British Conservative party, he attended Harvard and is a specialist on English political theory.

He said secular democracy and privatized religion is the only antidote to Islam and the religious activism of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. "I don't believe Islam will reform from within," he said.

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