Why are more atrocities committed in the name of God than anything else?

Why are more atrocities committed in the name of God than anything else?

“No one must use the name of God to commit violence,” Pope Francis said at the Catholic University in Albania. “To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.” Pope Francis says religion cannot justify violence | GMA News Online

The Pope’s remarks were aimed at terrorists who fight under the banner of Islam. He seems to say that those who use violence to further religion aren’t acting in good faith but rather contrary to established religious norms. But this is far from the case.

Violence in the name of religion has been a staple of human history. (Religion isn’t the only cause of violence. The three leading candidates for crimes against humanity in the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin and Mao—weren’t religiously motivated.)

But violence sanctified is deeply embedded in nearly every religion. Here are some examples:

In the Jewish bible, God kills innocent Egyptian children to teach the pharaoh a lesson.

For Jews, Hanukkah celebrates the success of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire. In the 20th century, the Stern Gang, dedicated to ending the British Palestinian Mandate and opening it to unrestricted immigration to Jews, described themselves as terrorists. Yitzhak Shamir, one of the leaders, said he found inspiration in the biblical stories of Gideon and Samson.

Christians waged crusades under the banner of the cross. Not only did they kill Muslims, they also murdered other Christians over doctrinal matters and unleashed centuries of systematic anti-Semitism. Later, Pilgrims and Puritans, who fled Europe because of religious persecution, established violent and intolerant colonies in America, acting barbarically in the name of Christian theology. St. Michael is the saint of the police and military.

Islam established its roots as a conquering army. Mohammed is revered as a prophet and admired as a military leader. Shia and Sunni Muslims have been killing one another for more than 1,500 years, all in the name of who rightly succeeds their religion’s founder.

What religion is more non-violent than that of Buddhists? Yet during WWII, most Buddhist groups in Japan supported their country’s war efforts. This wasn’t the first time that Buddhism supported violence. During the 16th century warrior monks rallied to the idea that “The mercy of Buddha should be recompensed even by pounding flesh to pieces. One’s obligation to the Teacher should be recompensed even by smashing bones to bits.”

Hinduism is built upon the precept of doing no harm. Yet in their holy text, the Bhagavad Ghita, Lord Krishna argues that violence in the defense of justice isn’t contrary to the spiritual life. Om 2008, Hindus attacked more than 20 Christian churches in southern India.

The point is that those who do violence in the name of religion aren’t usurpers. Violence in the name of god is deeply rooted in religious texts and tradition. At the same time, denouncing those who use God’s name to justify violence also has its religious precedents. Terror and compassion are both part of religion and what is normative depends upon which strand wins over the hearts and minds of its adherents.

The issue isn’t whether terrorists and fanatics are acting in the name of their religion but whether they are acting on behalf of humanity. It isn’t whether they are good Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus but whether they are good people. On that score the answer is unequivocal: terrorists are criminals of the worst sort and their brutality needs to be condemned by every decent person. That was the Pope’s point and I agree.

Religion is powerfully motivating and belligerent humans fight over it. Heck, religion has caused conflict even in my diverse and tolerant family. Taking our daughter to visit her Irish-Catholic relatives, I asked my husband to make sure they didn’t give her any pork. Like Jews, Muslims steer clear of anything with an oink. My gentle, peaceable mate, wanting to avoid one of those conversations, said: “Mam, Yazzy doesn’t like pork so don’t give her any.” A few days later, my beaming mother-in-law proudly announced: “She does like pork. I gave her some sausages and she ate them right up!” It took a few days for my blood pressure to return to normal

Then again, humans also fight over small bits of compressed carbon, tracts of dirt, addictive mind-altering substances and soccer matches. It’s not just religious ideology that causes problems – state-imposed atheism was a defining feature of brutal 20th century regimes led by Stalin, Tito, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot among others, which resulted in the suffering and murder of millions. Tens of thousands of Russian Christians alone were executed for their beliefs by atheists intent on purging religion from the Soviet Union.

Yet it’s true, religion has been a major feature in some historical conflicts and the most recent wave of modern terrorism. Religion has taken on extra significance today because globalisation is challenging and changing everything. Religious identity not only survives but can take on heightened significance when national and political alliances break apart, as happened in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, when Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs were divided along Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim fault lines.

The Qur’an recognises the human propensity for conflict and gives permission for defensive warfare. Muslim scholars developed a just-war theory although admittedly in the ensuing centuries jihad was also used to further the territorial ambitions of ruthless leaders, just as today it’s distorted to justify terrorist bombings. Like both law and politics, religion can be used to defend the oppressed and to oppress the defenceless.

The problem of corrupt religion has attracted the criticism of many prophets and saints. The Qur’an censures religious hypocrites:

Among the people there is he whose discourse on the life of the world pleases you, and he calls on God as witness to what is in his heart, yet he is an unyielding and antagonistic adversary. When he turns and leaves, he walks about corrupting the earth, destroying crops and livestock – God loves not corruption (Q2:204–205).

The verse could well apply to Saddam Hussein, who made a show of praying on television, but gassed and bombed Kurds and was a tyrannical dictator. Religion, unfortunately, provides a useful cover and powerful motivator for the evil-hearted. That religion can be so markedly different in the hands of the power-hungry, as opposed to the altruistic and virtuous, really says more about human psychology than it does about religion. That’s why so many human conflicts unfortunately involve religion.

I am often asked how I can believe in God when there have been so many wars caused by religion. The implication is that if only people would leave behind their convictions about the existence of a God the world would be a much better, more peaceful place.

Of course very few people ever reflect on the fact that the very reverse of this was demonstrated in the 20th century, which saw the atheistic communist and Nazi ideologies rise. In fact, that century saw more killing than the previous 19 put together.

None of this is to say that religion has not at times been a cause or significant factor in war. In fact, because of our current context with the rise of Islam and, in particular, of violent Islamic terrorism all over the world, it is true that horrific acts played out on our televisions day after day are religiously motivated.

It may be that someone who is asking questions of us is unable to distinguish between Christianity and Islam and is equating the two. The first task here is to draw clear distinctions between Christ and Muhammad, as well as the Bible and the Qur’an, on the issue of violence.

It may be important to point to Jesus Himself, as He healed the ear of the arresting soldier when Peter had drawn a sword in defence of Him and cut it off.

True Christian responses
Christians, however, would be the first to hold their hands up and say that violence committed in the name of Christ in history, such as the Crusades or the Inquisition, is certainly not a true reflection of what Jesus came to say and accomplish. In fact, true Christian responses at the time of the Crusades resounded from leaders such as Francis of Assisi and John Wycliffe, who roundly condemned any killing or warfare in the name of Christ.

But what is a Christian view of war, if killing people in the name of Christ is wrong? The New Testament itself does not condemn the vocation of a soldier if the work is carried out in a responsible and lawful fashion (Matthew 8.5, Luke 3.14, Acts 10.1-8 and 34-35).

And yet other passages such as the Beatitudes seem to point towards pacifism: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5.9).

There are broadly four historical Christian positions when it comes to seeking a biblical position on the concept of war:

Militarism – any war, anytime, any place, any cause.
Selective Militarism – only when the state declares the cause is just.
Selective Pacifism – only when the individual thinks the cause is just.
Pacifism – no fighting anytime, any place, on any cause.
Most Christians today would fall into the middle two. However, the early Church response to war was initially pacifism that allowed for the possibility of Christian converts staying on in the army. Pre-Constantinian theologians and Church leaders such as Tertullian took the rebuke of Peter as an absolute position; they spiritualised the battles in the Old Testament and did not allow for any Christian approval of war.

It is the great Christian thinker Augustine who introduces “just war” theory into Christian thinking. “Just war” thinking originates in classical civilisation, but Augustine developed it, building on this and the work of the 4th century theologian Ambrose.

The first set of principles deal with reasons for a nation going to war (jus ad bellum): The only just cause is defence against aggression. The only just intention is to restore a just peace to friend and foe alike. The use of military force must be a last resort after all other negotiations have failed. The decision must be made by the highest governmental authority.

The second set of principles deal with the modus operandi or conduct of a war (jus in bello): War must have limited ends only sufficient to repel aggression and redress its injustice. The means must be limited by proportionality to the offence. Non-combatant immunity from intentional and direct attack must be respected. Combat should not be prolonged when there is no reasonable hope of success within these limits.

Most protestant and Catholic churches adhere to these rules about war, and Scripture is clear that war is a disastrous tragedy from which the innocent always suffer along with the guilty. The psalmist laments war, the prophet looks for the day when swords will be beaten into ploughshares and the kingdom of Shalom appears, and the New Testament blesses peacemakers, while Jesus resists being made king by force.

A cosmic battle
From beginning to end, the story of the Bible takes place in the context of a cosmic battle between good and evil, which is introduced to us in Genesis and runs through until Revelation. At different moments in history this war takes different forms.

As God’s chosen people are commanded to enter the physical land that He gives them, they are to displace the evil practices that have gone on there and not allow themselves to be drawn into these things themselves. This happens at a moment in history but does not give a license for any individuals or subsequent nations to go and do likewise.

All of this must also be seen in the light of the reality that God raises up other nations’ armies to come and judge Israel. They too experience the judgement of God against their sins.

When the New Testament comes, Jesus is the fulfilment of the promises and longings of the Old Testament; He is God come to earth in human flesh.

Jesus conquers evil through His death on the cross and calls His followers to appropriate that victory in their own lives, and to continue the spiritual battle through prayer and a life of service following Him.

When wars occur between the nations of the world, Christians in different contexts must work out their involvement and reaction to those wars using biblical principles. The development of “just war” theory by theologians and Christian thinkers of previous generations helps the contemporary Church do this in faithfulness to Christ and His word.

The grisly deeds of IS in Iraq and Syria evoke once again the question as to the connection between religion and organized violence. Its companion question asks if Islam has a special affinity to such acts. Since the militants of IS, like their al-Qaeda counterparts, proclaim themselves to be Salafists, or devout fundamentalists, whose duty is to restore the purity of the Islam community of believers, the ummah, by destroying both false believers and the infidels with whom they are allied (as well as heretics), the claim is made that something about the religion is conducive to violence — or even promotes it.

The latter is today’s burning issue due to headline events. It is a specious formulation of the issue, though. A cursory review of history reminds us that militants of all religions have committed atrocities in the name of their faith. The Crusaders celebrated their taking of Jerusalem by massacring its Muslim and Jewish citizens - after an arduous winter that included a bit of cannibalism. Then there were the auto-da-fe burnings, the mass slaughter of the Cathars, and on and on. The Israelites killed every man, woman, child (and beast) in Jericho at the command of their god Yahweh and performed other gruesome deeds in the confident belief that they were privileged by being His Chosen People. (Deuteronomy 6:21) Judaism’s great tradition of universal humanism did not emerge until much later, taking full expression with the Pharisees at Jesus’ time. Jesus was the epitome of a radical strain in Pharisee theology — he was, after all, a Jew addressing a universalist message to other Jews. Even Buddhists have been comfortable on occasion gripping the bloody sword — as witness Myanmar, Sri Lanka and, in the eighteenth century, the (Buddhist) Burmese razing of the great Thai Buddhist capital of Ayutthaya. Hindus, too, committed their share of atrocities during the Partition of 1947 and in subsequent communal riots as recently as 2002 in Gujarat. We also should recall that suicide bombing as a trademark of modern terrorism was inaugurated by the Tamil Tigers who committed hundreds of suicide attacks — including that by the woman who targeted Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — because of India’s intervention in support of the Sri Lankan Buddhist government’s suppression of the Hindu Tamil rebellion. *

It is tempting to play the game of debating which religion is more or less violent than another. In truth, that exercise beggars the bigger and more important question. Namely, is it religious doctrine and loyalty that can motivate some persons to abuse non-believers OR are all dogmatic, doctrinal ideologies prone to do so? Religion can be viewed as a sub-category of those aggressive ideologies which can take secular forms. The twentieth century has witnessed the lethal effects of imbuing societies with the avowedly secular (indeed, anti-religious) ideologies of Nazism and Communism of the Leninist-Maoist-Pol Pot variety. Nationalism, too, is an ideology which has demonstrated great propensities for violence. They all stress the fundamental distinction between “we” and “they” conducive to the atrocious treatment of others. An ideology that embraces the two dualities of ‘we/they” and “good/evil” produces the combustible brew that is fatal to a sense of shared humanity.

These non-religious movements share certain traits.

· They evoke passionate loyalty to a community of believers/communitarians.

· They subsume the individual in a collective movement that dictates behavior and sets tests of loyalty.

· They arouse feelings of sacredness without calling upon the supernatural.

· They promote bellicosity in dealing with others.

Fascism was a political ideology that transcended religious and cultural boundaries. The Ba’ath parties of Iraq and Syria were of this order — wholly secular and explicitly anti-religious. None of Saddam’s crimes was committed in the name of Islam; he and Osama bin-Laden hated each other (Dick Cheney’s self-serving fantasies notwithstanding.) Then there are the hybrids that meld nationalism, Fascism and religion. The Spanish Falange stands out. World War II saw atrocities committed by the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the Romanian Iron Guard, the Croatian Ustashi and the Slovakian Hlinka Guard. The Iron Guard was Orthodox. The others were all fiercely Catholic — the Slovak President was a Catholic Priest, Jozef Tiso, who defied the Pope in his eagerness to deport Jews to the death camps. So, too, for the Lebanese Falangists.

Intense nationalist identities thereby took on a sacred quality while identifying as the evil “other” persons within reach of different faiths who were brutally sacrificed to the tribal gods. Religious ideologies and secular ones (with the exception of Nazism/Fascism) share another noteworthy trait. They hold out the promise of a glorious future for their adherents. In the case of the great universalist religions, the promise is offered to all of mankind. So does Communism. The former emphasize a blissful Afterlife, the latter Heaven on Earth. Most religions also convey a message of benevolence, peace and good works that can alleviate suffering in this life even if the ultimate reward is in the next. That entails a code of ethical conduct, i.e. ethical conduct counts along with faith and belief. Those codes condemn individual violence among other forms of abusive conduct.

The contrast of a strict moral code abjuring violence with a clearly etched line of differentiation between the community of believers and non-believers generates contradictions that never have been satisfactorily resolved. For Christians, the teachings of Jesus would seem to stigmatize war and violence of any kind. That is not the way it worked out. Political compulsions overcame the imperatives of individual ethics. “Rendering” unto Caesar involved much more than dutifully paying taxes. Moreover, the institutionalization of Christianity in the hierarchical and highly disciplined Church mixed the temporal and the sacred irrevocably. At the theological level, Christians’ acceptance of the Old Testament as divinely inspired meant incorporating the spirit of Yahweh into the religion of Jesus the pacifist. If “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” (ROMANS 12:18), the Church saw itself as properly His prime subcontractor.

The spirit of domination and suppression was brought literally into the New Testament with the official inclusion of the Book of Revelations in the canon early in the 5th century. Written by the Jewish exile John of Patmos, it gave Gospel status to the ghastly Apocalyptic visions of the Hebrew prophets. In a bizarre closing of the circle, End Times evangelicals in the heart of America, like Ted Cruz the Dominionist, celebrate the Israeli assault on Muslim Palestinians, Operation Protective Edge, as a sign that the cataclysmic Armageddon — as prophesized by a Jew of antiquity — will soon announce the return of Christ the Redeemer for the Day of Judgment and the Eternal Salvation of Christians while recalcitrant Jews and other rejectionists of Christ are damned to fire and brimstone. Jesus, after all, is the Latinized Greek name for Joshua who “fit the battle of Jericho.” (John argued that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah who would return to bring Salvation to the Hebrew people — destroying their oppressor Rome and all the unrighteous. On Judgment Day, all those who “overcome” will be granted the ultimate blessing of sitting beside the Son of God on His throne). (3:14-22).

Islamic holy texts contain these contradictions inherited from the Peoples of the Book along with the contradictory passages of the Koran, and the Hadith. There, one can find justification for a wide range of actions concerning violence and the treatment of believers as well as non-believers — from the most benign to the pernicious.

In spite of the many differences among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, they share a fundamental belief in God as compassionate and just. As a result, those communities have often nurtured people of extraordinary kindness and courageous commitment to justice. In contrast to the deep hatred that obviously inspired the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the vast majority of Muslims, like their Jewish and Christian counterparts, are appalled and sickened by terrorism, and utterly repudiate the mass murder of innocent people.

Why then do some members of those same communities believe that it is their moral obligation to wage aggressive holy war, even to annihilate innocent people in God’s name? What aspects of their scriptures and traditions tend to support violence against “infidels”? What ethical principles–religious and non-religious–can we affirm in response to those ideas and the atrocities that they sometimes engender?

Religion is clearly not the only catalyst of total war and other forms of indiscriminate violence. People seem to be able to invent all sorts of rationales for mass killing without feeling the need to cite the will of God. For example, just a few days prior to the September 11 attacks, two young men from the Sacramento area each killed half a dozen people, apparently out of personal revenge. And some of the most appalling atrocities in history have been rooted not in religion per se but rather in racial or class hatred. There may even be a genetic tendency in our species, like that of our chimpanzee relatives, to attack and kill others for no reason except that they aren’t “one of us.” (Wrangham and Peterson)

But religious violence can take on a particularly intense and ruthless character, if the objects of that violence are seen as blaspheming or insulting God, as the enemies of God or God’s way narrowly conceived. The problem of indiscriminate holy war is particularly difficult for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to eliminate from within because it’s so deeply rooted in their scriptures and traditions. The same religious traditions that affirm God to be compassionate, merciful, and just, also include more disturbing claims that promote religious hatred and intolerance, and sadly have provided a rationale for aggressive holy war. We need to face these things head-on. Questioning the moral justification of holy war leads, moreover, to troubling questions about the legitimacy of some basic theological claims and the authority of foundational religious scripture.

Most of my comments will be about Christianity, but I’ll start with the Hebrew Bible, since it is considered sacred by all three traditions.

One of the Mosaic commandments prohibits murder (Exodus 20:13). Why is murder wrong, other than its obvious conflict with love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:17-18, 33-34)? Essentially because people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6). One might infer from that idea that no killing of persons would be allowed at all, that the concept of human beings as made in God’s image would entail strict pacifism, an absolute duty not to kill people. But that is not what the ancient Hebrews concluded, since many offenses were subject to capital punishment, a form of killing (see examples in Exodus 21-22). So perhaps we might interpret the image-of-God idea to mean, All persons have a basic right not to be killed, but they can forfeit that right if they commit a serious enough crime. This would also be consistent with punishing only those guilty of crimes (Deuteronomy 24:16) and limiting the use of deadly force to the defense of innocent others or oneself. This is probably what most Jewish people would affirm today.

But collective punishment and indiscriminate war were also commanded or approved in the Hebrew Bible, especially in cases of idolatry. The first of the Mosaic commandments prohibited the Israelites from worshipping any other gods but Yahweh. God demanded purity and strict obedience, and idolatry and blasphemy were punishable by death (Exodus 20:3, 5). Non-Israelites who lived within the area believed by the Hebrews to have been promised to them by God were seen to pose a great temptation to them to abandon their faith. This led them to justify the slaughter of entire communities (Deuteronomy 20:10-18). And their holy wars eventually inspired similar wars many centuries later by Christians who admired Old Testament warriors like Joshua: “[Joshua’s army killed everyone in Jericho], both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys… Joshua defeated the whole land… he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded.” (Joshua 6:21 and 10:40)