Monday, May 24, 2010

Of Pulpits and Primates

I’d like to address ignorant people who pontificate about religion but in reality have not thought through this topic sufficiently. You know what I’m talking about, right? For instance, some individuals will spout off about the Bible without ever having read it. I’m not referring only to those who are hostile toward the Bible. I’m also thinking of those who claim to use the Bible as their guide in life. Do they know, for instance, about the acts of genocide recorded in the Pentateuch and historical books of the Old Testament? Do they know what Elisha the Prophet did to children who made fun of his bald head?  Some people tend to be favorable toward religion, while others have a knee-jerk animosity towards it. So be it. We all bring to the table life experiences and a genetic code that have shaped our thinking about religion. Except for the enlightened few, which of course includes me, a bodhisattva if you will, the majority of those who condemn Christianity have something in common with those who defend it: their claims are more visceral than intellectual. I don't care for the adherents of either camp, for they both succumb to pronouncements about the meaning of God or religion and have done virtually no spadework in this area.  Have they really read the holy texts and sifted through the critical literature?  Have they spent their life in contemplation on these ethereal matters?  If not, why should I value their opinion?

The other day I chanced upon a television documentary on YouTube entitled “The Root of All Evil?” and hosted by Richard Dawkins. The root of all evil? Really? To be fair, and to his credit, Dawkins, I’ve since found out, wasn’t keen on the title and I gather he doesn’t subscribe to this view. Honestly, I admire Dawkins to a degree for his relentless pursuit of the truth, come what may. While those particularly of a religious persuasion find him arrogant, and though Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias fault him for stepping out of his expertise of biology and into the realm of philosophy and religion, he’s doing the Lord’s work, to speak wryly, and forcing at least thoughtful theists, especially Christians in the Anglo-American world, to come to terms with their presuppositions and sharpen their convictions. But this idea that religion is the source of most, if not all, the evils in the world is prevalent.

I don’t believe that religion is inherently or intrinsically violent or tending toward bigotry and hate. I know this view is out there, and I understand why it is. We live in an era of Islamic terrorists and abortion-clinic bombers. One time I developed and co-taught an honors course on religious violence with another instructor. The sociologist whom I teamed up with was a flaming liberal and wanted the students to know it. My objection isn't so much her liberal persuasion but her evident proclivity to proselytize and indoctrinate rather than educate. That is, she wanted to convey to the class at seemingly every turn that religion is a force for evil in the world. I should point out that I disagree with this accepted view not because I’m openly or secretly favorable toward religion; rather, as I'll explain below, my understanding of human nature and culture dictate my thinking here. I've addressed some of my ideas in the blog entitled "Pathetic Primates," for which I received a Nobel Peace Prize; but while I was then discussing morality more widely, here I'm specifically discussing religion.

I make my assessment as an amateur biological anthropologist and a part-time social scientist, and while I’m neither a Darwinist nor a Marxist per se, I often appropriate their insights. What makes humans self-interested and nasty is not religion but our base instincts inherited through the evolutionary process. It's a dog-eat-dog world in this rat-race of an existence, and we're naughty monkeys regardless of preachers, priests and pastors telling us sinful creatures that we ought to be hog-tied and horse-whipped for not living in accordance with the Good Book. Religion is one tool that can be used as a means of domination, but it’s not the cause of hate and xenophobia. These things are hard-wired within us already. Here I’m addressing only the negative aspects of religion and not the positive. So religion and moral codes can be a means to enable certain groups to dominate over others, but, again, a tool is not the cause. So, we could get rid of all the religions in the vain hope that we’d live in a world without war and genocide and hate. However, we’d be clearing the spider webs and not killing the spider: our basic nature. Hobbes, no slouch on questions of human nature, stated in chapter 13 of Leviathan that competition, diffidence, and glory were at the root of conflict in the world. Note that he didn’t say religion.

Think of the genocides of the 20th century. Which of these perpetrating regimes wiped out a people in the name of religion? None. The Turks slaughtered the Armenians under the banner of Turkish nationalism; the Nazis operated under a secular ideology of “blood and soil”; the communist regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot that led to millions upon millions of deaths were officially atheist; and in Rwanda Christians were slaughtering other Christians not because of theological or liturgical differences but in the name of a secular slogan of Hutu Power, the domination of one ethnic group over another. If one wants to argue that these ideologies are really just ersatz religions, as Christopher Hitchens does in his interesting book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, than that would certainly stretch the definition of religion beyond recognition. Even ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, which some have seen as a classic example of religious violence, is upon closer inspection more about cultural fault lines, territory, and a sense of historical injustice.  While religion appears to be the casus belli of the Religious Wars of Early Modern Europe and the ongoing violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East, we can perhaps extrapolate from the aforementioned 20th-century examples that religion, even in these instances, wasn't the real issue; rather, territory, natural resources, women, testosterone, and Hobbesian diffidence were likely the ultimate factors.  Theological disagreement provided merely a penultimate rationale.

What about the Crusades and the Inquisition and Jihad, Der Viator? Surely these nefarious episodes in history stem from religion! Listen. You can enhance, inspire or augment hate with such religious ideology, but xenophobia and egocentrism, the sine qua non of hatred and violence, are already present within us. Do you really think that white settlers would have been content staying put in the East Coast and would have avoided the genocide of North American Indians were it not for "Manifest Destiny" telling them that God wants them to take over the continent from pagan, benighted souls? Do you imagine kings tossing aside their crown and embracing popular sovereignty without the "divine right" concept of monarchy? If so, then, to quote a Judas Priest song, "you've got another thing coming!"

Historians have exaggerated the Christian roots of anti-Semitism  in the Middle Ages. I have students read an account of a pogrom in the 14th century. During the Black Death or outbreak of bubonic plague that swept through Europe after 1347, Christian communities sought scapegoats to account for God’s apparent displeasure with them. The chronicler of Strasbourg reports on the mass burning of Jews and easily gives the impression that their rejection of Christ played less a role in their slaughter than the community’s desire to seize Jewish money (see link below). I’m not saying religion does not factor in, but, again, it’s merely an ideological tool to justify lust for property and goods.

I’d like to reexamine instances of “religious violence” a bit further. I’m well aware of wars fought in the name of creeds and confessions. What better way to silence blasphemers, heretics, infidels and witches than with sword and musket? My area of expertise is the Reformation and, by extension, the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. My dissertation dealt with confessional tension and conflict between Protestant factions in Germany. Egged on by preachers and pastors, people slaughtered each other ostensibly because they differed on theological doctrine or liturgical practice. The key word here is ostensibly. I submit that God and salvation are the penultimate reasons but not the ultimate reasons for the hate and violence. That is, people, men to be specific, are really fighting to take their neighbors’ land, seize their goods, rape their women, and essentially spread their influence in a Darwinian sense—not unlike chimpanzees going on a raid (and what religion they subscribe to is unknown to me). Perhaps a better analogy is one of a superstructure and infrastructure. Religious ideology, just like any secular ideology such as democracy, communism or Nazism, is the superstructure that imposes itself on a firm base, or infrastructure, namely, our natural ethnocentric and egocentric instincts. We assume the ideology is the culprit when more often than not it’s merely a justification, a rationale, for not-so-ideological desires.

The lack of religion being a factor in many modern wars and genocides further fuel my hypothesis. The French Reign of Terror, to use yet another example, stemmed from the highest ideals of democracy and liberty, but it quickly descended into genocidal massacres in the Vendée.  The Jacobins’ persecution and execution of putative counterrevolutionaries had nothing to do with God. As mentioned before, man’s inhumanity to man has not abated in the modern age. If anything, humans have become more secular in the process of marshalling the increasing wealth and technology, a large purpose of which is to kill a greater number of their kin with greater efficiency.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say there are absolutely no instances of religiously-inspired violence. Jim Jones and David Koresh seemed sufficiently intoxicated with their understanding of the Bible and the “end times.”

The Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East hate each other partly on religious grounds. This is true. But the Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds likewise have a troubled history. I would even argue that the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was less about two Muslim nations fighting over the proper interpretation of the Qur’an or the succession of the caliphs than about Saddam Hussein coveting oil and a waterway to the Persian Gulf. Despite his age and reputation for piety, the Ayatollah Khomeini looked more and more like a vainglorious Persian ruler motivated by hate and pride. He even bought weapons from the infidel, Israel, in order to destroy Saddam. Was it a religious war? For the Iranian martyrs confronting Iraqi tanks with nothing but a grenade it sure was. Certainly the propaganda would depict the battle against Saddam in epic theological proportions. I think it was more about Arabs and Persians hating each other and despising their respective cultures.

People who tend to be hostile toward religion of any kind would say that religion ipso facto is the culprit. The doctrinal foundation itself is faulty. It creates an "us and them" mentality, a sense of inadequacy, a fanatical devotion to an impossible ideal, and the list goes on. The theological framework itself is to blame, not merely the hypocritical and flawed people who profess it. Other critics would say that religion is a good thing, full of ethical precepts and love for one another, etc. However, sometimes those who profess a given religion go astray and use it for evil. Jones and Koresh again come to mind here. Another idea, similarly, is that people hide behind their religion. In this sense, they don’t particularly believe or subscribe to the key tenets of the religion, whatever piety they claim to possess.

One can divide up religious-thinking, for lack of a better word, in many ways. I’ll give you three here: exclusivist, universalist, inclusivist. An exclusivist would say that her religion is the only way that a person can achieve salvation or nirvana or enlightenment. I truly understand this point of view, but one can also see the problem with it. Why didn’t God make this path clear for all to see? So the Hindu born and raised in India will not find salvation in the Christian sense just because he had the misfortune of living in India? Some are universalists.  All roads lead to salvation, they’d say. I’ll never be able to go this route, what with the contradicting claims and concepts of various religions and philosophies out there. It’s a ludicrous form of ecumenism, and besides, don’t let universalists fool you.  Those who espouse a universalist view are disingenuous, for if you probe them enough you'll find that they believe their (pseudo-) universalist belief is the right way.

I used to consider myself an “inclusivist," someone more or less rooted in a particular tradition but not to the exclusion of others. That is, I’d keep an open mind and be critical of my own tradition, even though I’d remain largely within its safe confines. Admittedly, the inclusivist position means less to me now that I’ve entered the agnostic camp more self-consciously in recent years.

My vexing journey from evangelical to non-believer is part of a growing trend in the Anglo-American world, as physicist Victor Stenger has persuasively argued in his book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009).  If there is in fact no God, or gods, then, to use an inane cliché, it is what it is.  Civilization will go on and technology and science, unencumbered by archaic religion and its philistine practitioners, will make leaps forward, as Dawkins and other secular humanists have been calling for.  As iPhone-wielding and highly-caffeinated primates congregated in cities we do not need religion to make us selfish and irritable toward one another.  We've got those traits already covered—except of course me, the selfless bodhisattva who's wholesome and pure.