Holy Terrors

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 by Bruce Lincoln.

Lincoln Holy Terrors

Lincoln’s Holy Terrors is an excellent piece of theorizing about the nature and potentials of religion in the 21st century. It was written in 2003 (although it incorporates texts composed earlier), and takes the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as a point of departure. 

In the first of six chapters, Lincoln succeeds in providing a longish but successfully comprehensive definition of religion that does not presuppose or depend on concepts of God, spirits, souls, the supernatural, belief, or faith. The definition covers “four domains–discourse, practice, community, and institution,” (7) which he later admits are derived from the topics addressed by Kant’s treatises which “brought the campaign launched by the Enlightenment to a compromise conclusion.” (58) He also proposes a spectrum from maximalist to minimalist religious influence in social conduct, using these as rough synonyms for fundamentalist and liberal religion respectively. 

The second and third chapters of Holy Terrors maintain the focus on September 11 and public responses to it. In both cases, Lincoln undertakes some careful rhetorical analysis: first to compare the statements of US President G.W. Bush and Osama bin Laden (viewing them as representing societies predicated on minimalist and maximalist religious positions, although complicated by circumstance), and second to anatomize the efforts of American televangelists to use public reaction to the events as fuel for their own religious enterprises. These discussions are buttressed with primary documents appended to the main text. 

The fourth chapter is rather brief and quite theoretical, although littered with examples and anecdotes, in an effort to examine the consequences of the different interactions of religion and culture under pre-Enlightenment maximalist conditions and post-Enlightenment minimalist ones. Chapter five goes on to chart a variety of possible processes by which these tensions can be activated and play out in a postcolonial environment. 

The final chapter posits the inadequacy of previous social theories of religion, in that they uniformly take religion to be a conservative force favoring the status quo. History provides plenty of counterexamples which Lincoln does not hesitate to list, and he advances three categories beyond “status quo religion” to complete the picture: religions of resistance, religions of revolution, and religions of counter-revolution. 

The whole book is only about a hundred pages, and it is well worth serious reflection by those who consider themselves proponents or critics of religion, as well as those concerned with the parameters of political and social change in our time when religious ambitions and conflicts seem to be so inflamed.