A few days ago, my Twitter feed succumbed to a familiar trend. Firstly, scant rumours of a bombing trickled out - this time in Brussels. Minute by minute, details of the nature of the attack accumulated, until it became clear this was yet another jihadist terrorist attack.
People world-wide responded with messages of support of which we are sadly accustomed. Among them, a word perpetually entangled with these events resurfaced: ‘Pray’.
Among the most popular Twitter hashtags were #PrayForBrussels, #PrayForBelgium, #PrayForUsAll and #PrayForPeace. US President Barack Obama declared "The thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the people of Belgium”. The Prime Minister of my home country, Malcolm Turnbull, tweeted “Australians' thoughts, prayers & solidarity are with the people of Belgium”.
While lifeless bodies from Zaventem Airport and Maelbeek Metro Station were still being dragged out, many were led to believe the antidote to such cancerous religious extremism was a mild dose of religion. Unfortunately, praying for victims of the Brussels attacks is as effective as homeopathy in medicine.
Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine that attempts to treat illness via the ‘like-cures-like’ doctrine. It claims a substance that causes symptoms of a disease can cure that disease when given in a minuscule dose. Have tearing eyes and a runny nose from a cold or hay fever? Have a drop of onion. Experiencing nausea and vomiting with diarrhoea? Have a nanoscopic dose of arsenic. Homeopathy also believes in the tenets of single therapy (one treatment for multiple symptoms) and the smaller the dose, the more effective the remedy.
The problem is that it doesn’t work. The effectiveness of homeopathy is not proven by medical science, and there is no plausible mechanism by which a highly diluted substance could retain any biological effect. While homeopathic medicines are generally not harmful themselves, homeopathy can be dangerous when relied on in place of conventional medical treatment.
Of course, it would be great if the ill effects of religion could be rectified with a single treat-all sprinkle of religious love. Prayer is a lot softer and simpler than increased security measures, militarised foreign endeavours, counter-terrorism think-tanks and grass-roots religious reform. Likewise, it would be fantastic if a vile of liquid chemically indistinguishable from pure water could treat cancer, rather than nausea-inducing chemotherapy and skin-searing radiation, but we are not living in that fairy-tale.
What we require in response to violent acts of terrorism is not prayer; wishful and fanciful potion drawn from the same reservoir of bad ideas that caused the problem in the first place. What we don’t need is combatting toxic symptoms of sectarian, faith-based beliefs with milder symptoms of sectarian, faith-based beliefs. In other words, the fix for the ails of harmful quantities of religiosity - in this case Islamic extremism - cannot be smaller doses of religiosity.
Both prayer and jihadism are largely symptoms of the same bug. Faith-based belief - conviction in an omniscient and omnipotent being who answers the calls of believers and rewards a deserving few in this life and the next - places humanity on the precipice of disaster. The influence our species has had on this planet in a few hundred years is stupendous, and the reach of this influence, both positive and negative, will only continue to grow. What could the most brilliant and driven biologist do two hundred years ago? Cross breed peas. What could the most brilliant and driven biologist do today? Create synthetic life starting with a digital genetic code created in a computer. What could the most brilliant and driven physicist achieve two hundred years ago? Move a magnet through a loop of wire to produce a tiny electrical current. What can physicists accomplish today? Detect waves of warping space-time originating from the collision of two black holes one and a half billion years ago. What could a madman in charge of a country do two hundred years ago? Send people running on foot lunging sharpened pieces of metal at each other. What could a madman do today? Launch nuclear weapons and vaporise millions of people in seconds.
Islamism and Jihadism are diseases that are proving to be insidious and chronic, with the potential of becoming much more virulent. Unfortunately, new-age tendencies and homeopathic principles of like-cures-like, one single treatment, and less is better, represent much of our current response.
In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “religion poisons everything”. Administering a diluted form of this poison is not the answer to jihadism.