Since September 11, I’ve heard it more than once and will likely hear it again. The argument goes like this: Yes, all this banal talk about Islam being a “religion of peace” is, of course, a lot of nonsense. But the problem is not their religion but all religion. “Religious” people, you see, are all potentially murderous fanatics since “organized religion” is a (if not the) “root cause” of war and repression. People who are “religious” think God speaks to them. They have a book (the Bible, the Koran) and their book tells them they are the “chosen” or the “elect” and that they are to strike down or forcibly convert the infidel. There is little difference, really, between America’s evangelical Christians and bin Laden’s Islamic fundamentalists. There may be a God, but He is beyond us and far removed from our everyday lives. Anyway, “religion” is a private matter. So goes the standard argument of the postmodern secularist.

The problems with this line of argument are both numerous and obvious. Were Stalin and Hitler, for instance, members of an “organized” religion? If we mean a church in the traditional sense, no: Both headed anti-Christian regimes that rejected the traditional “organized religion” of their respective societies and murdered far more people than any repressive “religious” regimes ever had. So World War II, instigated in large part by these two dictators, was not a “religious” war in the usual sense, the one meant by those who claim traditional “organized religion” is behind most of the evil in the world. If we broaden the definition of “religion” to include political ideologies, then both most certainly were “religious,” but so is everybody else, including the zealots who want to crush “organized religion.” They are members of their own very well-organized church, the church of the ACLU, the Washington Post, and the Democratic Party. Fanatics come in all shapes and sizes, “religions” and otherwise.

One of the chief assumptions of the “organized religion is warlike” argument is that all “organized” religions are fundamentally alike in their aggressiveness. Yes, there have been Christian terrorists (those who have targeted abortionists, for example) and “religious” people have tortured, murdered, and raped throughout history, but I can think of only two religions —Islam and Shinto—whose adherents have exalted the suicide killer as one of the highest expressions of their faith. (How come there aren’t any Buddhist suicide bombers targeting Beijing?) As for Christianity and Islam, did Jesus call on his followers to make war on unbelievers? Muhammad did.

The real reason most of these very religious secular zealots bash “organized religion” has little to do with their supposed distaste for slaughter (I doubt many of them would question, say, the bombing of Hiroshima, much less abortion) or repression (many of them championed Vietnam’s communists in the 1960’s). The real reason is as old as the world and as common as a child’s rebellion against his parents. “Organized religion” represents traditional authority. Authority means rules, commandments, duties, and Thou Shalt Nots. And there are the sticky—and related—problems of evil and the disappointments and seemingly random tragedies of human existence. Their problem is not with “religion”; their problem is with God.