Philosophical Reflections on the Paris Attacks

In the aftermath of the horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris is has been difficult to read or think about much else. Fortunately, there are folks willing to help us think through the events in Paris.

Philosopher Jack Weinstein has published a piece titled “Yes, the attacks in Paris were about religion. Stop saying they weren’t.” at the PQED (Philosophical Questions Every Day) blog associated with his Institute for Philosophy in Public Life. Go read it.

Prof. Weinstein’s post provokes us to consider the degree to which religion continues to structure our worldview and, perhaps more importantly, our engagement with the world. He asserts: “Religions codify worldviews,” although he concedes that religion represents just one tool available to negotiate our encounters in the world. This observations opens the door to another question (as philosophical inquiry is wont to do): what, specifically, about these attacks were religious?

This question requires us to consider whether it is possible to untangle our worldview (which Weinstein sees as necessarily religious) from the non-religious tools in the toolbox that we use to make sense of our  21st century world. In the West, of course, the willingness to recognize both religious and non-religious tools for coming to terms with the world emerges because historically, we’ve both actively maintained a some places for religion and actively excluded it from other places in our world.

In other words, the existence of non-religious tools in our kit for understanding the world emerges from an understanding of the world that circumscribes the place for religion. Do we see, then, in the attacks by ISIS on Paris, a familiar secularism or just a profoundly alien outpouring of religious fanaticism? Is this even a question worth asking or is it enough for us to accept that acts done in the name of religion are religious.

Ömür Harmansah has recently argued that the destruction of antiquities by ISIS is less a  religiously motivated act of iconoclasm and more of a savvy engagement with both media technologies and “contemporary and perpetual image wars in the public sphere.” These image wars and ISIS destruction of ancient objects are informed a commonly held, hypermodern attitude toward media culture. In Weinstein’s terms, ISIS may be drawing upon a religious worldview, but they are using profoundly modern (even post- or super modern) tools to engage the world. If we accept Harmansah’s analysis of these destructive acts, then we are facing a group whose objectives confound both our understanding of their religious fundamentalism and perhaps even their own explicitly articulated religious expectations by allowing for secular tools and secular ways of viewing the world to manifest plainly in some of their most widely promulgated and encountered images and acts.

As we continue to try to understand the Paris attacks (and the range of responses to them), we have a chance to reflect on religion both in the Western world and in the troubled and war-torn Middle East. As Weinstein observes, this pushes us to recognize religion (and its absence) both as a tool for articulating our encounters with the world and as a justification for our own actions.  When we #PrayforParis we express the sincere hope that religion – even as just the opposite of the secularism – continues to be a viable tool for finding solutions to the world’s most pressing and tragic problems.