Throughout the centuries people have killed each other in vast numbers for the very best of reasons — religion. Oh they’ve done it for other reasons too — money, politics, geography, skin color, revolution — but never with more enthusiasm than when the cause was holy.
From the early Christian martyrs to the Crusades to the bloody wars of the Protestant Reformation to the genocides of the two World Wars and the Hindu-Muslim conflicts, right up to the present time, when Muslims slaughter Muslims because they differ on the legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad, religion and war have commingled.
It never ends. The 9/11 bombers claimed to be committing a religious act when they murdered thousands of strangers, and hardly a day goes by without a report of yet another suicide bombing that adds to the carnage.
In Egypt, the military government has recently gunned down more than 800 protesters for the sin of supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood government.
Meanwhile, the killings go on unabated in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. In blaming religion for all of this I’m being simplistic, of course.
Religionists are as much victim as perpetrator in these slaughters. The issues involved are complex and varied.
But peel away enough layers from each of those conflicts and you find a religious component. When was the last time we had a war in which both sides didn’t claim that God was on their side and, worse, believed it?
Even Communists, who profess not to believe in God, construct a deified leader (Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh) to believe in. Through it all I, a non-believer, have taken solace in the fact that there was Buddhism. You can argue that it’s not a real religion, but it certainly is a coherent system of belief and it doesn’t condone war. That’s what I thought.
Now I find out that Buddhists are accused of killing Muslims in Burma. I don’t know why. I’m sure they have a good reason; people who kill people of a competing religion always have a good reason. But it’s disillusioning.
To me, the warlike nature of religion is the greatest argument to be made for the separation of church and state. We’ve got people all over Washington clamoring for more religion in our government.
“Let’s put God back in the schools,” they say.
Let’s not. The more religion you have in government, the more wars you have and the more popular they are. It’s the nature of the beast. A democratic government in a pluralistic society must be inclusive and tolerant of the views of others.
The religious instinct is exclusive and suppressive of the views of others. I don’t care what religion you pick — Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Hindu — as you move along the spectrum of their beliefs, the more fundamentalist you get, the more intolerance you find, and the less desire to accommodate those who disagree with them.
Fundamentalists know they’re right and you’re wrong, and they have a book to prove it so don’t argue. As soon as the Muslim Brotherhood took control in Egypt, I knew the revolution there was doomed. The Brothers immediately went about setting up a repressive Muslim state, which in turn ignited a counter-revolution.
We tend to think of democracy as an unadulterated good. As Egypt proves, democracy without respect for the rights of minorities can be just as ugly as a dictatorship. A wise man once said: “An evil man can do evil things for evil reasons — that’s his nature — but when a good man does evil things it’s almost always for religious reasons.”
Amen to that, brother.
By Donald Kaul
OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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