Religion and Violence

The history of religion is perhaps a history of violence, the two have shared such close relationship. All major religions, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism are tainted with violence. Violence can be said to be inherent in religion. Religion, next to family, is the second oldest institution that governs the social as well as personal behavior of man by providing guidelines, laws and principles relating to his interaction with his fellow man and his god. Religion provided the rules for social order and government. In religion those who fail to follow the rules, laws, guidelines and principles must pay penance or penalty, or else the whole society, not just the individual, could be visited with disaster. Four of the five first books of the Bible are basically all about these laws, etc. and penalties for not following them. The Old Testament presents God as a virtual punisher for the slightest deviation from his laws. In Leviticus, chapter 10, two of Aaron's sons offered "strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not," and they were immediately consumed by a fire and "they died before the Lord." Pharaoh’s Egypt was visited with seven plagues for refusing to "let my people go." One of the ten commandments speaks of punishment even unto the third and fourth generations. Even in the New Testament Annanias and his wife Sapphira were killed for not disclosing and surrendering to the church the entire sum of money they sold their house for.

But God is not the only one who punishes people for not confirming to his rules. Most religions teach that those who have been specially called, ordained or anointed can also carry out the punishment on behalf of God. The trouble is, there are too many people out there who believe they were ordained or called by God to punish people on his behalf. Yigal Amir who assassinated Israeli prime minister, stated, "I acted alone and on orders from God." Kerry Noble, an activist of the Christian Identity, an organization whose comrades were in "a full and unrelenting state of war" against the US government, takes Exodus 15:3 literally and seriously when it said, "The Lord is a man of war." Noble and his organization believe that it behooves those who follow God to be the same. Christians who go about bombing abortion clinics believe they are carrying out God's work.

Zionists believe that they can hasten the coming of the Messiah by seeking to establish the state of Israel by the violent Mosaic method. According to their religious prophecy, the Messiah would arrive in Jerusalem. One can understand, therefore, the extent to which the Israelis are prepared to go for their god in wresting Jerusalem from the Arabs. But this is not the only reason for the eternal conflict between the Jews and the Arabs. Basically, they hate each other, even though they are genetic brothers from the same father – Abraham. For them, hatred is justified, even without reason, for in their common scripture, the Old Testament, God said he loved Jacob and hated Esau – without reason. But the two certainly have enough reason to hate each other, one going way back to Abraham's banishment and disinheritance of Ishmael, progenitor of the Arabs, and the anointment of Isaac, progenitor of the Jews. It is obvious that it was this ancient and infernal hatred that prompted the Moslems to destroy the most cherished temple of the Jews that was built by King Solomon, and build their sacred mosque on the very site.

Religions also condone violence in the form of human sacrifice. Followers of the Abrahamic religions believe that God accepts human sacrifice when he asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac (even though it was only a test of faith). The Thugs, Hindu worshippers of Mother Kali, believed in human sacrifice, and in the 1200 years existence of the Thugs, over a million human sacrifices were done in a most violent manner by waylaying and strangling innocent passers-by.

Religions also advocate violence against other religions or unbelievers. When Moses gathered the Semitic tribes together, it was their religious instruction to wage war against the people who were living in what is now called Palestine, kill them all out and take their land, all because they were not believers in the Hebrew God, but worshipped various other gods. Likewise, Islamic theology teaches the forceful conversion of unbelievers, or punishment for refusing to accept Islam. Also, those who went to fight in the Crusades believed they were destroying the enemies of God, and thus furthering Christianity.

Many violent words originated from religious contexts. An "assassin" was a radical Islamic (Ishmaili) person who took an intoxicant before embarking on a religious mission of murder. A "thug", as mentioned before, was a Hindu worshipper of Kali who strangled innocent passers-by as a sacrifice to the goddess.

From the above it can be seen, therefore, that violence is inherent in religions, and religions, even in their purest forms, provide a justification for violence.

However, when other social and political and national variables are mixed with religions, violence assumes an even greater role because the struggle is not just to convert or confirm to divine instructions, but also for mundane needs and wants such as social justice, racial equality, human rights, employment, financial upliftment, geographic territories... the list is endless. These mundane needs and wants are issues for governments to address. But religious involvement in government along a continuum ranges from theocracy – total involvement, to secular democracy – no involvement, and the degree of violence is therefore directly correlated with the level of religious involvement in the struggle for these social, political and national wants and needs.

The philosophy of secular democracy, originated from the philosophy of the Greek city states, and further developed by John Locke and Jacques Rousseau, allows for public life to be separate from church religion, i.e., scientific reasoning and the moral claims of the secular society replacing theology and the church as the prevailing influence on social identity.

The most influential symbols of secular democracy are presented by the US while the most classic theocratic examples are perhaps those of the Jews and Palestinians in their struggle for nationhood. They both have a strong theological justification for violence against each other, as in both their religions the people and nationhood are inexplicably linked to the land; thus:

Religion = People = Land = Nation (R=P=L=N), equation (1);

whereas in a democratic situation,

Religion + People + Land = Nation (R+P+L=N), equation (2);

and since they are different religions, different peoples and different nations fighting for the same land, herein lies the heart of the theocratic conflict for which a possible solution might be to remove one of the variables from the first equation, or convert the first equation into the second.

Islamic theology and theocracy, however, go a little further in its propensity for violence. The Moslem concept of jihad has been employed, since the establishment of Islam by Mohammed in 610 A.D., to mean both a struggle for personal salvation as well as political redemption. Many have interpreted the jihad for political redemption to mean the employment of physical force in the struggle against all ideas, ideologies, political institutions and practices that they regard as alien or inimical to Islam. Thus, secular democracy and the concomitant western lifestyles that invade their RPLN through the modern media are considered a dangerous enemy to be destroyed. One can therefore understand their theological justification for wanting to destroy democracy and the symbols of US democracy such as Mac Donalds, US embassies, WTC, Pentagon, etc.

Extremist Islamic theologists in organizations such as Hamas further believe that the jihad for political redemption can be accomplished by suicide bombing, and that young bachelors who undertake this jihad are immediately catapulted into paradise into the arms of seventy-two virgins, while their families would receive the sum of six thousand dollars (US). This promise of virgins has been particularly attractive to young men. Of recent, young women have also become suicide bombers. But the overwhelming motive for suicide bombing, a phenomenon peculiar to Palestine, has moved from religion to socio-political, in that young people see no present or future hope to escape the morass and dehumanizing conditions of filthy, congested camps they have been relegated to. They are a people demonized and demoralized beyond repair.

There are extremists in Judaism who also believe in murder, even of their own people. The teachings of Rabbi Meir Kahani were essentially a direct call for the killing of anti-Semitics, justifying such deeds with Jewish theology, historical precedents, and biblical examples. It was his teaching that inspired Dr. Baruch Goldstein to slaughter 30 Palestinians and injuring scores more while they were praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs on February 25, 1994. The slaughter was justified by many rabbis. Even the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin was seen as a sacred act in destroying someone, even their own leader, who committed a heretical act in that he surrendered biblical land to the Arabs, land that was promised and given to the Jews by God. So great a spiritual value the Jews place on the land! They believe that a liberation of the land is a prerequisite for their spiritual liberation.

In Ireland, although nationalism appears to be the motive behind the Catholic-Protestant conflict, at the heart of the problem is a religious dispute that was created a century ago when the British encouraged large numbers of Protestants from Scotland and England to settle in the Catholic dominated Northern Irish counties. The result was tension between two peoples of different religious labels.

In addition, most of the activists of the IRA are strong members of the Catholic Church, while those that oppose vociferously are Protestant ministers.

Here again we see the justification for nationalistic violence being deeply rooted in religion. Religion provided the resources for the violence as well as the moral justification by allowing activists to believe that nationalism and religion are intrinsically related, and fighting for one was also fighting for the other. One must bear in mind that this is not a struggle to establish a theocracy, therefore the equation R=P=L=N does not hold, but rather it is R+P+L=N, and we can try to play around with any of the variables, or even add another P1, where P = Catholics and P1 = Protestants, meaning that it is quite possible for the Catholics and the Protestants, being Christians together to co-exist harmoniously in the same land.

A similar situation exists in Punjab, India, where the Sikhs are fighting for separation from the Hindus. This conflict is probably more violent than that in Ireland. Thousands of people have been killed over the past twenty years, including the Chief Minister of Punjab, Beant Singh and India's Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Again a similar situation presents in Kashmir where the predominant Moslem population, aided and abetted by Pakistan, are engaged in violent conflicts with the Hindu minority as well as the Indian government for separation from India.

Throughout the history of India, fighting wars has been a sacred duty of the people. They fight primarily because they believe they are protecting their dharma (faith). Hindu scriptures proliferate with tales of battles of kings and deities and their loyal subjects, and this religious culture still continues in a land frozen by cultural patterns.

However, the exponent of satyagraha (non-violence), Gandhi, himself a devout Hindu who revered the Gita, believed that these stories are allegorical, and represent the battles between good and evil.

Then there are quasi religions and cults which are even more predisposed to violence both to themselves and to society. One cannot easily forget the mass suicide of Jim Jones in Guyana. Cults are particularly attractive to dropouts from mainstream society, including introverts, the gullible, under-achievers and to a large extent, over-achievers – people with above average IQs who throughout their lives have been groomed and tucked away in specialized schools, robbing them of socialization with mainstream society. These are the people who are very susceptible to “charismatic” preachers, and grasp at every whimsical doctrine floating in the air. (The word “charismatic” is used loosely here to imply politically or religiously manipulative.) This perhaps explains why the Aum Shinrikyo, a Buddhist cult, has an exceedingly large membership of some of the world’s top scientists. This cult, which has a membership of between 50,000 to 100,000, is led by Sahoko Asahara whose resources – both financial and weaponry, versatility, capability and leadership ability – would make Ben Laden look like a schoolboy. For a sub-national group, Aum Shinrikyo presently has the nuclear, biological and chemical capability to destroy this world. It even has the personnel as well as the motivation, since the essence of its religious belief is to destroy this world and repopulate it with Aum membership only. They preach that it is their religious calling to usher in the Armageddon. They believe that Aum membership will survive Armageddon. Imagine, the schoolboy only wants to destroy secular democracy, the master wants to destroy the world! (More about this cult in a subsequent article.) But keep your finger crossed and hope there is no alliance between Bin Laden and Asahara.

Today, the violence inflicted through wars far exceed the political demands of governments, and thus incur increasing opposition by the citizenry, as is becoming apparent in Israel. Therefore, governments will have to contract out their wars to extremist organizations. In the heart of these organizations are the ideological, moral and religious justifications for mass murder and destruction.

As can be seen, therefore, perpetrators of violence must necessarily: (1) demonize or discredit their victims to clear their conscience, and (2) justify their actions on altruistic or religious grounds. However, Gandhi, like Christ before and Martin Luther King Jr. after, has shown that it is quite possible to rise above religious dogma, and peacefully co-exist with peoples of different religions, races, ethnicity, etc. I think these men have shown that we should avoid religion and seek after righteousness. After all, did not Engels say that religion was the opiate of the people? It certainly is addictive and destructive.

– By David G. Sukhdeo

Note: Since the article was written, the writer has come upon a preponderance of evidence to suggest that the episode at Waco was not mass suicide, but mass murder allegedly caused through the bungling of the US Authorities.