As religious conflicts continue to escalate in the world, one cannot help but concede that mankind really has not improved at all since Mark Twain called for religious indifference. But this would be a one-sided perspective, for that century-old call was really made to Westerners, most of whom were largely ignorant of Eastern cultures. That situation has since changed because of globalization. Nowadays, Westerners at large can seriously look to the East for religious guidance.
When it comes to violence, a stark contrast has always existed between Eastern and Western religious cultures. This contrast revolves around people’s conception (or misconception) of God. The Western mind is obsessed with the question of “Whose God is the true God?” and has been chasing its tail for millennia searching for an answer, often resulting in bloodshed. Its Eastern counterpart, on the other hand, finds this question irrelevant.
According to Huston Smith, a professor of religion, our world has seven major religions: two from China (Confucianism and Daoism), two from India (Hinduism and Buddhism), and three from the Middle East (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). For discussion purposes, we shall generalize and refer to those from China and India as Eastern, since their domains of cultural influence are mainly confined to East Asia and South Asia, areas traditionally referred to as the East or Orient. Likewise, we shall consider those from the Middle East as Western, since their respective domains are primarily outside of the ‘East’ and encompass traditional notions of the Western world.
Violence and Monotheism
The three Western religions all share a monotheist theology, meaning that their believers worship only one God. While outwardly it may seem rather benign, inwardly this theology has a sinister side. That is because for these specific religions, God is said to possess certain human-like characteristics, some of which are more prone to violence.
Such characteristics are recorded in the Torah, a scriptural text that is shared by all the Western religions. Firstly, God is always described as masculine, implying that He has a male temperament. More importantly, He is capable of feeling certain negative emotions (jealousy, anger, hatred, etc.) and would not hesitate to act upon them. When He feels insecure about the loyalty of His worshipers, for example, He often uses threats of violence as a means to assert His authority – “I am the LORD your God… You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation”
Furthermore, He hates those who do not worship Him exclusively and brands them as followers of His competitor, Satan (the false God). He holds such a deep grudge against them that He commands His worshipers to ruthlessly annihilate them –
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations…and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”
Through having a God with such a personality, these Western religions are accustomed to violence which is imbued with a sense of divine righteousness. To add fuel to the fire, they strongly disagree with one another on God’s doctrines, such as about diet, prayer, as well as heaven and hell. Similar forms of disagreement also exist among denominations within each religion. As a result, each religion (or denomination) upholds its own set of doctrines as the ultimate truth and the corresponding God as the only true God. Unable to reconcile their differences, these religions have clashed many times throughout history and into the present day.
This kind of divisive mentality has plagued the Western religions and their respective cultures for some four thousand years (since the birth of Judaism), producing relentless violence, with no end in sight.
Examples of such clashes include the Crusades (1095-1291) between Christians and Muslims, the European Wars of Religion (1524-1648) between Catholic and Protestant Christians, and the Arab-Israeli Wars of the mid-20th century between Jews and Muslims. Today we witness similar religious violence, most markedly with regards to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
This mentality can also be seen elsewhere. While ushering the United States into the War on Terror of the 21st century, the American president George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, declared: “This Crusade, this War on Terrorism, is going to take a while.” He also demanded the nations of the world to take sides in this war: “Either you are with us…or with the enemy; there is no in between.” Such is the black and white mentality of monotheism – coercive, rigid, and uncompromising. Every nation, every community, every human being has to choose between God and Satan, because there are simply no other options in life.
The Western religions and their respective cultures have been plagued by this divisiveness for some four thousand years (since the birth of Judaism), producing relentless violence, with no end in sight. In contrast, the four Eastern religions and their respective cultures have coexisted relatively peacefully with one another for about the same length of time. Their histories show almost no record of any sizable inter-religious or inter-denominational conflicts. (It is worth noting that since Islam came to South Asia around 700 AD, Muslims have largely annihilated Buddhism in India and relentlessly engaged in conflicts with local Hindus, as exemplified by the Indo-Pakistani wars.) Interestingly, the common theology that all the Western religions share – monotheism – is something that every Eastern religion happens to lack.
Hinduism has many gods, suggesting that the Hindus are comfortable accepting various perspectives of the Divine. The fundamental teachings of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path – make no mention of any God or gods. The pivotal scripture of Daoism – Dao De Jing – is virtually devoid of discussions about deity or theology. Confucianism focuses mainly on how human behavior can affect society; it is not interested in the existence of God.
Theologically speaking, none of these Eastern religions cares to make the claim that there has to exist a “supreme being” to whom every human being must submit. Perhaps it is their indifference toward monotheism (or their wisdom to see beyond it) that has allowed them to peacefully coexist for such a long time. Such wisdom of indifference is precisely what Mark Twain believes that the West needs to learn:
“So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: “Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbors religion is.” Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code.”
Monotheism as practiced in the West is, in my opinion, the root of religious violence, causing conflicts that have stirred our history and are still active today. To help reduce such violence, those in the West need to seriously question its value and necessity. By drawing from history, they can hopefully see the pattern that their obsession with serving the “true” God is only going to trap them in endless rounds of pointless conflict. By observing their neighbors in the East, they can hopefully also get the hint that what they believe to be “true” here is only a figment of their perception of reality. As such, it is not good enough a reason to kill, let alone to die for.
[Photo: The Battle of Lepanto (1571), unknown artist]
Christianity’s mistake was to incorporate the Old Testament with the New Testament to form the Christian bible. The resulting contradictions are impossible to reconcile, and all the historical violence is rooted in the Old Testament.
You make a very good point. However, that bible has been around for quite some time, with its contradictions well known to mankind. Sadly, the world has yet to see a sizable group of Christians (or followers of Jesus) who are brave enough to openly reject the Old Testament.
To expand on the discussion a bit, I agree with the argument put forth regarding western monotheism, but also wonder about not just a particular pattern of human behavior but a more generalized truth that addresses why we can kill or die for an idea. Does it only pertain to a specific character of a religion or does the virulence of dangerous ideas have a more general mechanism of action. For example, what about Nationalism, since it too alone has spurned some of the worse wars, such as, two world wars and many others spanning human history. How then are any dangerous ideas naturally selected to survive like a virus to spread and infect an entire community quickly. Perhaps the only defense or immunity from such dangerous ideas only happens when individuals can immunize themselves first through self awareness that we are all susceptible, and secondly by maintaining an open and flexible mind. Then perhaps, even a more general vaccination of the community can evolve through the process of free exchange of countering ideas. To this end, the author should be congratulated his courage and dedication to “save us from our selves”
Certainly, a very well-intentioned piece by Forest Grace. Also, a much-needed one that challenges monotheistic theologies.
Generally, polytheistic theologies are less hostile to each other – witness the so-called “paganism” of Europe, Japan’s Shintoism and the non-Vedic theologies of the Hindus. That’s why when I celebrate Christmas, I celebrate one of Europe’s most popular “pagan” cultures – nothing to do with the coming of the Lord.
Having said that, a number of points emerge from what Forest Grace suggests. I have summarized my observations under 3 major heads below – 1) Religious Bigotry; 2) Binary Logic; and 3) Superficial Understanding:
1. Religious Bigotry: We don’t need religious bigotry in the 21st century, i.e., in an age when human civilization is armed with weapons that can destroy entire nations ten times over. And, by religious bigotry I mean, the attitude that my religion is the only true religion and my god is the only true god.
a. Any thinking that leads to the belief that I or my side is always right is fraught with potential violence. This kind of thinking forces us not to concede any acceptance of the other’s position.
b. This bigotry can be driven by religious/theological, national, racial, and/or gender-based prejudices. And, hence, drives us toward intolerance, narrow-mindedness and chauvinism.
c. We are now armed with weapons of mass murders (no longer bow and arrows or spears). If we allow our ethical standards to be driven by 2000-year old theologies then we are in grave danger. Our new technological prowess requires matching and complex ethical as well as tolerance standards that will help us better manage our immense powers of destruction. The current anachronistic mismatch, i.e., modern technological prowess on the one hand and supported by 2000-year old ethical standards on the other, is fraught with danger. We need to give up stone-age/ copper-age/ bronze-age/ iron-age thinking when using digital technologies of 20th and 21st centuries.
2. Binary Logic: Avoid binary (0-1) analytical frameworks, thoughts and world views. Such as, avoiding further divisions along East vs West. Rather consider multi-dimensional analyses of current issues staring at us – because they require non-reductionist, multi-dimensional analyses. And, as the elaboration of my 3rd point (below) will show, there are multi-dimensional factors to explaining the emergence of malevolent gods, such as the god of Jehovah or Indra.
a. First, if we think and promote the concept of East vs West, it reinforces the Bush-like thinking that the author already cites.
b. Second, cross-religious studies reveal that the emergence of malevolent gods have more to do with the timing of their emergence and the matriarchal / patriarchal conditions of such societies and not about their Eastern or Western lineages. For instance, (and surprisingly) gods that emerged along with trade and commerce and rise of city states in most cases have been gods that were malevolent, gods that were lustful, deceitful and vengeful. We always think that trade and commerce should drive peace across nations and societies and it did, as in the case of Buddhist theology that abhorred caste and social distinctions and, hence, preached peace and harmony across social groups – which helped foster trade and commerce in the region. However, a more general scenario has been the emergence of violent, deceitful, revenge-seeking gods. Among the pantheon of Hindu gods we notice such changing characteristics of gods, such as Varun and Indra. From being friendly and lovable gods they turn into revenge-seeking, lustful, deceitful gods.
c. Similar differences of behaviors (of gods) are noticeable when comparing those that emerged in pastoral-patriarchal societies and goddesses that emerged in settled agricultural-matriarchal societies that pre-dated the iron age (when agriculture was in the hands of women who successfully developed agriculture in the fertile river valleys with sticks and stones, i.e., with pre-iron age implements).
d. No longer are the 19th and 20th century prejudices of nation-states (since the 17th century treaty of Westphalia), imperialism and commercial interests above all else compatible with the need to advance galactic travel-type technologies that will benefit every individual of our 7 billion+ human civilization, avoidance of human-engendered climate change.
e. Even the 20th century enlightened self-interest (and commercial interests) do not appear compatible with the benefits and powers that can be harnessed with the emerging technologies.
f. Perhaps, we need a new theology that will sustain us through this period of technological development and launch us into a galactic-travel era. (I am reminded of Gene Roddenbery’s Star Trek (Future Generation), which brought into discussion many of our modern day ethical dilemmas.)
3. Superficial Understanding: It is important to avoid superficial understanding of religious and theological positions that could lead us to believing that Hinduism and other eastern religions are peaceful. (Not knowing anything about Daoism (I have read of similarities between Samkhya and Tantric philosophies) and Confucianism I will restrict my comments to Buddhist and Hindu examples.)
a. If eastern religions have promoted peace, then the Buddha-loving national army of Myanmar could not have carried out massacres of the Rohingian Muslims. Likewise, the massacre of Sri Lankan Tamils by the Buddhist state cannot be explained. Nor can we explain the violence, rape, and pillage by Hindu kings (of ancient and middle ages) of Buddhist Sri Lanka and her monasteries. Sri Lankan history is replete with repeated attacks by the Southern Hindu kingdoms.
b. Vedic theology has a strong nihilistic tendency. At the same time, being a theology of pastoral-patriarchal societies it also reveals violent tendencies against the female.
c. One of the early Vedic gods, Varun, a lovable and peaceful god of ancient times turns violent when he emerges during the rise of trade and commerce, and also paralleled by the emergence of city states in Northern India.
d. Indra, another Vedic god, who emerged later and became more popular from the earlier-popular Varun, was from the very beginning lustful, deceitful, vengeful, violent and war-like (like George Bush and Dick Cheney!).
I rest my case.
One other point to be made is how Hinduism is the only one which gives equal or sometime more prominent position to female goddess. Likewise all animals are revered and are associated with one of the God.
Fighting for religion is like fighting over which color must be everyone’s favorite color. Imagine people killing each other for blue or orange or yellow or pink or red being the correct color that all must like.