Religious Wars: Still Fracturing a Shrinking World

by Robert S. Becker on January 5, 2010

Five days into 2010 haven’t quite offset my hangover from our seasonal consumption binge, wherein history’s richest, ostensibly Christian culture spends billions more on gifts, wars, and provoking terrorism than feeding the poor in spirit or pocketbook. In an odd parody of Christmas, Senate Scrooges gave unsubsidized, uninsured families a lump of coal, a coercive medical insurance scheme with penalties for defiance.

Jesus’ birthday was strafed by a failed suicide bomber along with predictable fatalities in Afghanistan. Reading Sarah Vowell on our Puritan forefathers only confirmed our own beginnings, depicting how the first Europeans, as if freed from Old World decadence, embraced two menacing fantasies. The first asserted instant American exceptionalism and the second, even more troubling, that God’s inevitably on our side. Not much has changed, per Sarah Palin and Tea Partiers. Consider Arthur Schopenhauer’s grimmer judgment: “The fruits of Christianity were religious wars, butcheries, crusades, inquisitions, extermination of the natives of America and the introduction of African slaves in their place.”

Is it mere chance then our government unilaterally wars against four Muslim nations, with more coming? Did not W. represent a fearful, uninformed majority that trusts its western God to approve belligerence against infidels? As Noam Chomsky observes, “Three quarters of the American population literally believe in religious miracles. The numbers who believe in the devil, in resurrection, in God doing this and that — it’s astonishing. These numbers aren’t duplicated anywhere else in the industrial world.” Ditto death panels, Creationism, the Rapture, Armageddon, or the end of times.

Does God Love War?

What links ideological crusaders like Dick Cheney with Islamic extremists is not hard to fathom: both urge a state of permanent, endless war against perceived infidels. Is this tragic dance not what Aldous Huxley rejected, “At least two thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity, idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols”?

No doubt religion brings many joy and solace, discipline, and insight into human nature, as prophets set forth evolved goals for forgiveness and compassion. Though master texts routinely disavow brutality, real-world observers like Dick Nixon knew otherwise, “In the long term we can hope that religion will change the nature of man and reduce conflict. But history is not encouraging in this respect. The bloodiest wars in history have been religious wars.”

High-Tech vs. Low-Tech Terrorism

Nevertheless, while recent world wars weren’t religious per se, we appear to be regressing to the bloodiest of clashes, oddly setting our version of high-tech terrorism vs. tribal versions of low-tech terrorism. What does it mean when the most advanced, powerful (Christian) nation pummels some of the world’s poorest (Islamic) places? Who exactly is most threatened by what and whom?

Certainly geopolitics and resources matter, but when avenging leaders on both sides rule, some form of religion inevitably sets the table, the boundaries, and the duration, especially when focused on protecting holy places (theirs as well as ours: Wall St., White House, the Pentagon). Religious divisions especially rule wars without identifiable ends, where the mission is to displace another’s way of life, either with real or cultural genocide. “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully,” commented Blaise Pascal, “as when they do it from religious conviction.”

What is it About Religion?

We may have a new year but a very old question remains – How can religion induce so many to sacrifice their lives while killing others, all the while deluded everyone does God’s will? We’re not talking random mental disease, but centuries, eons, of invoking religion because even despots hesitate to say, “We’re bigger and stronger, we want what you have, and war is the answer.” Instead, war-makers forever act the aggrieved victims.

The issue isn’t God, for that unknowable, infinite entity is by definition not readily assessable by human thought or reason. Curious how there’s never an independent observer, or hard proof, whenever true believers relate conversations with God or burning bushes. One may challenge evolution or whether Jesus lived as reported, but no one can objectively affirm or deny the unknowable except by leaps of faith over impassioned, inner bridges.

But religion, all sixteen thousand varieties, is not equivalent to God, whatever the claims. Religion is about human behavior and its political impacts, of late fracturing a shrinking world. For me, behind religion stands fear of the unknowable (say, Heaven or Hell) and the invisible, whether God, grace, angels or the devil. Human nature abhors ambiguity as nature a vacuum, so we make metaphoric claims resistant to proof or disproof: God created the cosmos, then the earth for his special, human followers, who must therefore be special. Otherwise, what blesses with transcendent meaning our transitory moments, what else sanctifies our tiny life spans, those flickering few years?

The Ultimate Battle: Predicting the Future

Our species carries innate tribal values, by which we assert superiority over other lesser humans, with inferior souls, minds, and holy places. Like wolf packs, we worship hierarchy, awarding ourselves status between animals and angels, convinced we have free will despite evidence of high biological, genetic and species determinism. Why not instead this invented sequence – a quick-witted witch doctor posits something beyond, then convinces some bigger chief that religion would organize the community, define enemies and friends, even pacify unhappy, forever whining underlings?

We appear addicted to reverence for something larger than ourselves, usually remote and big, like mountains or stars, even stronger animals, dead ancestors, or great, sometimes wise prophets. Religion then produces the earliest rituals and values, the glue binding every group. Certainly, every beleaguered early parent warmed to religion, to civilize their wild and wayward young. Every culture has its Ten Commandments, and religion defines ethical boundaries, as well as reinforcing social hierarchy, so it had real value between wars.

Finally, religion fuels our seemingly universal, missionary “know-it-all” mentality: we know we’re right, so we insist others follow suit. Not to be dogmatic is to betray the core of almost every religion: knowing what God thinks and what He/She/It wants us to do, now and to come. For ultimately, religion dares one other impossibility: to predict the future, especially for putative souls. We can’t even fashion a humane health care program a year hence, nor predict the weather in two weeks, yet every Sunday every born-again preacher can tell everyone how to live and die right, even how to gain God’s grace and eternal salvation. No wonder, though religion persists, many of us align ourselves with humanistic knowledge and predictions from scientific methods. For when it comes to evolution, energy independence, or global warming, even the future of this tribe, I’ll take good scientists, artists, and philosophers over TV evangelists or Rapture zealots any day.

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