Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are Religions Violent?

Phillip Jenkins in Monday’s USA TODAY argues that “any faith can become violent.” True enough. But why?

Religions, professor Jenkins suggests, aren’t intrinsically violent, but “can be used to justify savagery and extremism.” No doubt, but I suggest that the reason religions can be used to justify savagery and extremism is because there is something intrinsically savage and extreme about them.

If I want to convince people to murder other people I will have more success if I focus on religious distinctions than soft drink preferences. There is nothing intrinsic to Coke and Pepsi that leads me, a Coke drinker, to seek to exterminate the Pepsi drinkers of the world. Indeed, when Coke isn’t available, I have been known to sip a Pepsi now and again.

Religion is used to justify violence because religion is inherently violent. Religion by and large is a zero-sum game: for some to win, others must lose. Zero-sum gaming is behind all notions of saved and damned, true believer and infidel, chosen and not chosen. As a zero-sum game religion pits one group against another, which I admit Coke and Pepsi do as well, and then raises that distinction to cosmic proportions, something no other zero-sum game can do.

You may believe Democrats are evil, and do your utmost to see that only Republicans are elected to office, but you can’t claim they are in league with the Devil unless you are willing to leave the confines of politics and take refuge in the cosmic drama of religion. Religion is the ultimate zero-sum game because it is the only cosmic version of the game, and because it is the cosmic version religion foments, not only justifies, savagery and extremism not only in this life but in the next life as well. Even Tea-party loyalists don’t imagine their liberal opponents burning in Hell for all eternity, but many religionists do.

What can we do about this? Not much. Religions are human inventions, so the problem isn’t with this or that religion but with us. All of us. We all fall prey to zero-sum thinking. Religion is the way we elevate our insanity to cosmic proportions. So there is no point in reforming religions until we have reformed ourselves. And since it is we who have to do the reforming, expecting any real reform is wishful thinking.

The solution isn’t more religion or less religion, but a radical investigation into the madness of the human being. Each of us must look at, take responsibility for, and seek to limit the amount of violence we do. Each of us must look at, take responsibility for, and seek to minimize the frequency of our zero-sum gaming— political, economic, religious, etc. If we refuse to participate in zero-sum games, the games will fade away. Religion won’t stop being violent until we do.

Good luck with that.


briankb said...

“Religion is used to justify violence because religion is inherently violent.”
“Religion won’t stop being violent until we do.”

Religion is an extension of our (human) nature. Religion in and of itself cannot be violent, nor can it be non-violent. Religion is viewed as violent or non-violent only when used as the scape goat or savior for humanities natural inclination to violence or our occasional glimpses of a higher, non-violent nature. Saying religion is inherently violent is like saying some music is inherently sacred and other is secular. Just ain’t so.

Eruesso said...

I have been known to sip a Pepsi now and again.

Heretic! Thou shalt burn forever in a lake of RC Cola!

Unknown said...

Maybe religion is God's gift to get us to stop blindly following rules and learn to use our hearts! Maybe someday we will all say "I hear your rule but I choose compassion and kindness instead". The golden rule should have been: "Love comes first".

andrea perez said...

Take it you don't like the "Secret".
All that good stuff has to come from someone else.Don't like it one bit myself.
Are religions violent? Where's the religion that says All have their needs met, All deserve happiness and if it doesn't happen, then All will hold your hand and try to make it better? Not blow you up or send you to hell on earth or below.
Until we All become compassionate, empathetic people who try to make sure that All are taken care of,then I guess we need an ethical system based on fear and shame in order to make Most be a bit more selfless.
Are religions violent? Yes/no maybe so. I just know that people tend to be selfish, controlling and prone to aggression. Since people make up the rules, I'm ashamed to say: Yes.

Barry said...

I'm not usually one to defend Judaism, but as far as other religions are concerned, it is not a "zero-sum game." We are a tribal cult, and what the other tribes do is technically not important to us and not our problem (unless of course they try to trample our civil rights). We don't try to make them Jews.

There is the problem of violence among Jews. A few years ago, riding my bicycle on an unfamiliar street in North Hollywood (in Los Angeles) on a Saturday afternoon, I saw a group of women dressed as Orthodox Jewish women do, standing on a corner. Their small children were throwing rocks at passing cars. One kid, about six years old, was ready to heave one at me until I yelled that I would beat him bloody if he threw a rock at me. He put the rock down. The women looked at me, but none of them said anything.
So I guess we Jews use (or threaten) violence to protect our religion or protect ourselves from "our" religion.

Derek said... Change ourselves, change religion.

Rabbi Rami said...

Great comments. Thank you all. I am off to LA to speak at the LA Times Festival of Books so I can't comment at length, but just a few things.

1. I think some music is inherently sacred and some inherently violent. Is Mozart the same as gangsta rap?

2. I apologize to slighting RC Cola.

3. I like the Dalai Lama's teaching that his religion is compassion. Jesus' religion was love. Buddhism and Christianity on the other hand have done some pretty horrible things.

4. I have written a long essay on the Secret that got me into lots of trouble with Secret lovers. It was published in Spirituality and Health Magazine.

5. I would suggest Judaism is no less zero-sum than any other religion. The very idea of God choosing one people over others reflects the heart of zero-sum thinking. The fact that most Jews may not take this and other Jewish demands seriously says more about liberal Jews than it does about Judaism.

If you want to make a difference check out the Charter for Compassion and also down load my own Neti Neti manifesto from the Support section of my website,