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Religion, Huck Finn, & Terrorism
09/25/2002

I'm in the midst of an email conversation with Mark Shea, spurred by my post about Huck Finn and religion. Mr. Shea more or less takes Mr. Tammeus's side, at least as I've presented it, and the topic is interesting enough that I thought I'd open it up to public discussion. What follows is the substance of my latest email.

My difficulty, I guess, stems from "religion" becoming such a slippery term (e.g., shouldn't there be a difference between "the practice of religion" and "practices of a religion," the former being the general act of organizing a belief system and the latter being individual acts or traditions?).

At one extreme, I suppose one could say that "religion" is a set of beliefs, in which case everybody is obviously motivated by "religion" in all things. But then what's the point of blaming "religion" for evil as opposed to just human nature?

At the other extreme, "religion" could be no more than the set of dictates of an organized church, in which case Huck would have had to believe that owning slaves was a religious obligation. But it seems pretty clear that Huck was grappling with the sin of stealing, slaves being considered property.

The strongest argument would be that which defines "religion" as the zeal that results from the mixture of beliefs, doctrine, and desires. In this respect, one could say that Islamic terrorists are "motivated by religion." But is that really the case? Consider the currently troubling branch of Islam. The leaders seem to be motivated by greed and lust for power. To reach their ends, they stir up feelings of resentment, envy, wrath, and so on among their people. Religion only enters the picture to the extent that the leaders must find a way to make expression of those sins seem acceptable.

A quick flip through Huck Finn reveals many instances of this. In the scene in which Huck lies that Jim has smallpox to keep him from being discovered, the men who fail to help are motivated by fear, but they give money to Huck as a way to assuage feelings that they ought to be acting otherwise ("I feel mighty mean to leave you, but my kingdom! It won't do to fool with small-pox." [emphasis added]). Again, religion isn't a motivation, but a barrier to doing wrong through which they seek a "loophole."

I'll admit to being less well versed than [Mr. Shea] regarding the Bible, but my understanding is that the religious and civil leaders of Christ's day were corrupt. It wasn't that they were motivated by religious beliefs, rather the leaders felt threatened and preyed on the fears and greed (Judas?) of the people to eliminate the threat.

In the scene in question [in which Huck decides to help Jim and "go to hell"], Huck doesn't break with his religion to obey the will of God; he doesn't understand Christianity, "his" religion (a point that is hammered from the very beginning). I would say a large part of the point of that scene is that understanding the religion of Christianity, considering it and following it, would reveal slavery to be wrong, slaves to be people, and freeing slaves to be much different than stealing.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 08:43 AM EST