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.