As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches my thoughts focus on the tragic loss of lives because of the actions of religious zealots consumed with hatred for other human beings. Zealots who thought themselves martyrs for the sake of their beliefs.
There was a time when I considered the definition of a martyr in no other terms other than a hero who sacrificed his life for his convictions. Holding this definition of martyrs I would defend Christianity with the contention, based on my own value of life, that early Christians would not have martyred themselves in such vicious and violent deaths for believing in a religion based on acts that they had not witnessed. The religious zealots who took down the twin towers changed my perspective. I now know that people can acquire motivation to follow a religious dictate without any need of certainty that their beliefs are factual.
A zealot is defined as someone who carries extreme or excessive devotion to a cause and conducts vehement activity in support of that cause. This is easily seen in radical Muslims but few Christians seem to realize radical beliefs in Christianity, even though historic records firmly present accounts of this same behavior throughout the establishment of Christendom. Like Islam, Christianity has extremist zealots who are uncompromising in pursuit of their religious doctrines and who can become as radical in their actions as those in any other religion.
Belief is closely associated with identity, but when that belief has been forcibly indoctrinated it merges with the inherent human need to placate and justify the ego and looms loftily over any obligatory directive to win others for Christ. Is this ever any more evident than watching the congregation of the Westboro Baptist church flog us all within the height of hatred?
Religious extremists associate their beliefs with their identity, if you nick the structure of their faith they perceive it as an attack on their person, not their beliefs. Although they will claim you hate God what they are really thinking is that you hate “me”. If I consider that they reside in a state of ignorance induced by brainwashing beginning when they were too young to reason or resist, I can rationalize that they were never afforded the opportunity to develop an identity outside of their indoctrination, and it is a state of pure fear that makes them react as they do. They go through life believing that they were born with an uncontrollable, innate, unchangeable presence to offend God which will cause them to burn eternally in hell and the only way that they can escape such a fate is by diligently trying to serve the dogma that they have been forced to adopt from people who they trust. This fear is so deeply rooted that they cannot overcome the anxiety of even entertaining any idea that does not fit within their structured beliefs. The overwhelming panic that the thought of eternal damnation in hell renders will not allow them to read any book, research any historical content, or listen to any words of opposing opinion. They believe themselves to be so wretchedly sinful, so bound for hell from exercising their everyday thoughts and actions that they must seek relief by blaming it on someone that causes them to be this way. Doctrines that demonize opposition as infidels or the workers of Satan will provide them with that someone to blame.
In time the fight against resistance becomes a need to remove all antagonism of their faith, at first by trying to convince others to agree with them, but eventually, if necessary, even killing their adversaries in order to guarantee their receipt of the rewards of heaven. As in the case of the Muslim extremists who attacked the twin towers, they see themselves not as killers, but as martyrs for their faith.
A martyr can be described as a heroic person willing to suffer or even die to remain committed to his cause and becomes renowned for his actions and inspiring others to achieve his level of commitment. In that aspect, martyrdom is attractive to someone who has a distorted view of self-righteousness. When I stop and think about it there is only a step not taken between zealots who will kill others in the belief that their god has commanded it, and those who would become martyrs willing to die for the commitment of their beliefs. The tragic events on 9/11 convinced me that religious doctrines can cause an extremist to believe that a zealot is a martyr and can turn those who would be martyrs into zealots. Christians are not, and never have been, immune to such a belief.