Time to Move On: Religion Has Cost Too MuchWhat is Religious Fundamentalism?The Causes of Fundamentalism, Intolerance and Extremism in World Religions, and Some SolutionsReligion, Violence, Crime and Mass SuicideDo We Need Religion to Have Good Morals?Christian Moral Theory and Morality in Action: Biblical Morals and Social DisasterGrowing Fundamentalism in Islam: How Moderates are Subjugated by Muslim Hardliners
This page is about the psychological, societal and religious sources of violent religious extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism. Together these most strongly oppose religious freedom and tolerance, which are most commonly upheld by secular democracies, minority religions, paganism, new age spiritualism and many new religious movements, and by the non-religious. The horrific spectre of oppression and violent coercion have resulted mostly from Abrahamic monotheistic religions such as Judaism1, Christianity (mostly in the past) and Islam (particularly prone to it at present2), and to a lesser extent from other traditional religions such as Hinduism, especially as a result of battles against multiculturalism. Fundamentalist groups seem especially prone to schism and organisational instability, with most such groups being originally part of larger movements. Because personal beliefs are raised to the level of life-and-death, every possibly interpretation of (vague) original ideas will result in two sides who stake their entire religious outlook on the fact that their interpretation is correct3 and often "that true believers are obligated to fight against corrupting influences from the broader culture"4. Anti-gay, anti-abortion and all manner of terrorists believe (strongly!) that their own religion provides guidance that trumps any secular law or any concept of human rights5. Many people push for increased rights for their own religion and for theocracy, 'out of an emotional attachment to their religion'6 but some people take it too far. The declining strength of religion in the face of secularisation means there are fewer middle-ground religionists to rein in extremists. Fundamentalist branches of religion across various religions tend to share certain traits and features7, in particular scriptural literalism, active resistance against multiculturalism and the rejection of human rights.
Fundamentalism is the approach to religion that sees believers embrace an early form of their religion, to consider it beyond criticism and worthy enough to be enforced upon oneself (or others) without having to accommodate modern evidence or logical arguments against it8. Sociologist of religion David Lehman describes "fundamentalist religious globalization" as the way fundamentalists establish themselves in a new culture "without acknowledging this new culture"9. This contrasts against other religious migrants who normally change and adapt to a new culture. Richard T. Antoun adds the phrase totalism to the picture: "the religious orientation that views religion as relevant to all important domains of culture and society"10. Steve Bruce divides fundamentalism into two distinct types: (1) communal (giving Middle-Eastern Islam as an example) and (2) individual (giving strict Protestant conservativism as an example)11.
Fundamentalists of text-based traditions treat a core holy text as infallible and inerrant12,13 - for example in Islam the scribes who eventually wrote down Muhammad's recitations wrote that it was not Muhammad who wrote the Qur'an. They said that he merely recited the copy of it that Allah created in Heaven. Aside from Abrahamic religions other textual traditions encompass communities that fall into the same traps - "conservative Sikhs share the same abhorrence of modern textual interpretation and exegesis as Protestant Christian fundamentalists", writes one sociologist1. Fundamentalism is often sectarian and intolerant14 - because precise values are adopted so strictly every possibly interpretation of (vague) original ideas will result in two sides who stake their entire religious outlook on the fact that their interpretation is correct15. So fundamentalism is often seen as violent, intolerant, stubbornly backwards and inhuman. Such religions often try to control ideas and restrict free speech through blasphemy laws - Neil Kressel in his book on religious extremism lists "prohibition against blasphemy" as one of the three most dangerous manifestations of organized religion16. Religious extremism often involves an obsession with controlling female sexuality17. These traits all arise because the 'fundamentals' of a religion are held to be those morals, behaviours and beliefs held by the earliest followers, hence, fundamentalist ideas clash with modern society, clash with modern evidence and knowledge, and clash with modern tolerant morality.18
For a longer discussion of this, see: What is Religious Fundamentalism?
Creationism is a Christian stance against established sciences such as physics, biology, geology and evolution. Most of them believe that the Earth is only 6 thousand years old, that the Universe was created in 6 days by God. Although not all of them believe in the actual Adam and Eve story, they do believe that all species were designed by God in their present form rather than being a result of the process evolution. What they think the use of genes are, and how they explain why 99.9% of all of God's well-designed species are extinct, I have no idea. These beliefs require the wholesale dismissal of such a huge volume of evidence from a vast array of sciences that ordinary people are astounded by the existence of creationists. It has been pointed out that a sensible approach to evolution requires a good education in biology first20 and that the complexity and imagination required to visualize long-term changes in gene pools and how they facilitate speciation are more difficult to grasp than "god did it" explanation21. Empirical research on the most popular and proclaimed creationists has shown quantitively "that almost without exception the creationist propagandists are incompetent scientists with few if any accomplishments to their credit"22. Unfortunately such people are not content to merely believe strange things. They want others to believe them too. Many consider the success of creationism to be the failure of the education system and of societal controls on extremism.
A more modern face of creationism is intelligent design (ID), which is slicker with its presentation and marketing techniques. ID's front-line battle is with the schooling system and their campaigns make "evolution" out to be contentious or contested and that ID should be taught in schools as a viable alternative. It has made much headway in the USA in particular, and in the UK some faith schools have been found to be teaching that the Universe is less than 10 thousand years old23. But ID fails to find acceptance in most other developed countries although tussles have also been fought in Belgium, Brazil, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and Serbia24. After the USA it is only Muslim countries and Africa that harbour virulent anti-evolutionists. Richard Leakey, who was once the director of Kenya's national museum, had to fight regularly to keep the descriptions of fossils and skeletons accurate. Anti-evolution Christians vandalized, threatened and sometimes won the right to have exhibits removed25.
Fundamentalists tried for a while to pass ID off as a different thing to creationism, but their bluff has been called26,27 and a series of legal defeats has seen the establishment recognize that ID is religious myth, not science. In 2008, the 47 member states of the Council of Europe resolved against the teaching of creationism, and emplored that scientific education is important and should not be mixed with religious beliefs28.
Thankfully, despite occasional small-scale failures, in all modern countries where science and education is driven by evidence, evolution continues to be strongly supported by Governments, and continues to be taught properly as part of public education systems.
Full page on this topic: "Why Question Beliefs? Dangers of Placing Ideas Beyond Doubt, and Advantages of Freethought" by Vexen Crabtree (2009)
There is a constant need for us to question our own beliefs, and the beliefs of those around us. It creates a healthy atmosphere of skepticism and intelligence, and prevents people from coming to unreasonable conclusions. The way our brains work mean that we frequently misinterpret events and data, and in particular, we always think there is more rationality and evidence for our beliefs than there is. This all matters because when beliefs become unquestioned, a community can become increasingly divorced from reality. This is especially true when individual leaders or belief-based authorities claim to be acting in accord with a divine principle, such as God's will. When it comes to disputes, religionists can come to deny any chance of compromise. In the adult world of democratic politics, compromise in disputes is what keeps things from breaking down: you give a little in one area, but have to give up in another. However arguments based on differences in religion or belief often contain parties that believe the issue has universal, absolute and cosmic significance. They will not compromise on their position, and many ordinary believers state that they think that religious beliefs should be somehow beyond question30. Malise Ruthven in his book on fundamentalism warns that this is particularly dangerous31. It is how religious cults are formed. In extreme cases this leads to complete social rejection and the possibility of suicide cults, as has been seen many times in history for example with Charles Manson's followers and the 900 who died when the People's Temple suicided. These groups always start out with borderline, but common, beliefs and slowly become more delusional over time. In all cases followers lacked an instinct to ask questions about the beliefs. It is religion that gains most when people cease asking deep questions about beliefs, and it is truth that suffers most. Thomas Paine famously remarked that "it is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry"32. In the name of truth and common sense, do not let even trivial-seeming beliefs take hold without double-checking them, because once beliefs are trivialised, a slippery slope can take you down into madness!
Full page on apostasy: "Apostasy: Thought Crime in Judaism, Christianity and Islam" by Vexen Crabtree (2013).
Take the very concept of apostasy, for example, which is an idea entertained only by those who have rejected any honest approach to truth, and compare it to the secular concept of freedom of belief.
Apostasy is the act of leaving a religion. It is deconversion. Normally it involves taking up another religion and sometimes it involves the taking up of a stance skeptical of all religions. If deconversion is the result of no longer believing that gods exist, then, the result is atheism. "Heresy" is the holding of beliefs that central religious authorities (or mobs) deem to be unacceptable. Religions often engage in a lot of internal suppression in these matters, subjecting their own followers to careful scrutiny to make sure that they are not merely believers, but, that they believe precisely the correct things. Dominant monotheistic religions often consider heresy to be the same as apostasy because they reject the concept of diversity or freedom of thought. Neil Kressel in his book on religious extremism lists "the willingness to implement violent sanctions against those who leave the fold"" as one of religion's most dangerous attributes (out of three)16. They have often made deconversion and heresy punishable by death, especially in historical Judaism and Christianity, and it still continues in present-day Islam.
Freedom of religion and belief is a basic human right. It features in the "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (1948) as Article 18 and in the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights, Article 10. It is essential that in order to govern well, you cannot discriminate against non-sanctioned religions, even if the majority of the population don't like the beliefs of the minority religions. Anything else is undemocratic. It is only religion and totalitarian states that even have the concept of heresy; in all other disciplines, a variance of belief is seen as good and healthy because it fosters debate, truth-seeking and diversity. The concept of thought crime can have no basis in moral law, so, traditional religions are often in conflict with modernity, human rights, moral goodness, democracy and liberty.
Starting from cave walls, carvings, stone constructions, trinkets and hieroglyphs, the usefulness of the written word has pushed Human development onwards. Now the written word is almost ubiquitous with Human existence, and our massive databases of information and linked hypertext documents online are its current epitaphs. But although its practical utility in industry and technology speeds up change, the written word also has a tendency to slow down cultural change. Once something is codified in writing, it becomes "set in stone": the longer it persists, and the more people who read it out, the more it defines cultural truths. The result is the creation of a romanticized golden age: the point at which a religious tradition codifies its beliefs into writing becomes the point of moral development at which adherents aspire to. Richard Antoun describes it as "the centering of the mythic past in the present"33The more often it is written down, the harder it is to challenge. From this point of view, literalism and fundamentalism are clearly linked.
Superstition, religion and belief may have been the first things we as a species attempted to encode into displayable records. Or a very close second, after stories of hunting and practical life. The general trend is that religious texts have become more solid and interpreted more literally as time goes on. All religions have experienced, over time, increased literalism and legalism, even Buddhism and Hinduism. But it is Christianity and Islam that have taken to literalism most whole heartedly.
As we know from the Reformation, the ability to read and write allowed the believing masses to come to better terms with the tenets of their religion. Text is (literally) black and white. Correct beliefs can be underlined and highlighted. Incorrect ones can be thrown out. There is something more compelling and demanding in the written word. As soon as people start writing down official statements and creeds, then, it is more possible to oust people if their statements differ from the group's official norm.
The very word "fundamentalism" was once wholly synonymous with "religious literalism" and is still used that way today by many34. Therefore it seems that increasing fundamentalism is a sign of increased literary competence; the cause isn't that more people are obnoxious, but simply that more people are able to get very precise with the beliefs of their religions. This precision, combined with modern individualism and other forces in society, can produce vitriolic and committed fundamentalists who have no lateral ties to society around them.
The solution is to avoid codifying beliefs that can't be questioned, and to actively seek new evidence, permit argumentation, and endorse a genuine and continual search for improvement in theory. Texts must be open to amendment as new evidence comes in. Such safe approaches to truth did of course become known by another name: science and the scientific method. As our understanding of the truths of the world improve over time, those traditionalists for whom the written word became set in stone, have become increasingly at odds with society at large especially as modern multiculturalism requires greater tolerance of others' beliefs and appearances.
Judaism arose from pre-history in a culture where tribal and village religion was spread by word of mouth and down the families, in an era that predated organised religion. This represents the least literalist form of religion possible and is a feature of nearly all ancient civilisations. But, as the power of the written word spread it came with related side-effects: centralisation and organisation of ideas, often because those who could devote themselves to learning to read and write were often the rich and powerful or those employed by them.
“The publication of the book of Deuteronomy was nothing less than a providence in the development of Hebrew religion. It was accompanied, of course, by incidental and perhaps inevitable evils. By its centralization of worship at the Jerusalem temple, it tended to rob life in other parts of the country of those religious interests and sanctions which had received their satisfaction from the local sanctuaries; and by its attempt to regulate by written statute the religious life of the people, it probably contributed indirectly to the decline of prophecy, and started Israel upon that fatal path by which she ultimately became "the people of the book."”
"Introduction to the Old Testament" by John Edgar McFadyen (1905)35
The trend towards textualism continued to spread with monotheism, almost becoming a defining feature. But literalism and centralisation led to fundamentalism and intolerance of diverse beliefs, as religious purists can use the texts to justify and expound very narrow definitions of what is acceptable.
The literature of Jewish Christianity was often of a highly symbolic kind, with much wordplay and hidden meanings to be found in texts. Gnosticism and Roman Mystery religions, and then Gnostic Christianity, used an intensely non-literal and symbolic form of writing. Text was two-tier. The outer religion was the kind seen by the populace. It was a simple story, a myth, often a rewriting of existing myths in to a more modern form or using updated characters. The inner religion was revealed to initiates. They were told the true meaning of the story and what each character, event, word and object in it represents and means. The illusion of the story of a literal event was revealed to be meaningless and ahistorical. Gnostic Christianity, closer to these, was suppressed by the fledgling roman Christian church, and the oppressor was naturally more literalistic and legalistic. Pauline Christianity - the type that prevailed - accepts Christian texts purely on the basis of the outer religion, the outer meaning: the literal text.
With the Council of Nicea, and onwards, an authoritive collection of texts was compiled (canonized), and as was already customary, competing texts were burnt, suppressed, and heretics who stood by them were killed and vanquished. This is a continuation of the process of literalisation -- a final complete authorized version is inherently a more legalistic formation than a loose and open canon. From the 4th century, the literalist written word in Christianity grew to be utterly dominant and had paved the way for fundamentalists ever since.
I've already written of the deleterious effects of such literalism on science and knowledge:
The stubborn stance against science and real-world knowledge in Christianity stems from the very founders of that religion. Take Tertullian, one of the great and powerful Christian speakers of very early Christianity, who in 200CE was defending Christianity against its critics. 'Before he closes his defense, Tertullian renews an assertion which, carried into practice, as it subsequently was, affected the intellectual development of all Europe. He declares that the Holy Scriptures are a treasure from which all the true wisdom in the world has been drawn; that every philosopher and every poet is indebted to them. He labors to show that they are the standard and measure of all truth, and that whatever is inconsistent with them must necessarily be false'37. And what a terrible legacy became of that mode of thought: it is only true if it says so in the Bible. The hallmark of ignorant, dangerous barbarianism and fundamentalism.
Thankfully for the study of truth, the process of secularisation has diminished the strength of religion across the West, and since the Enlightenment, when religious institutions started to lose control of public life, education continues to act as an anti-religion force in the world: the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to be religious. Education is the key to leading successful, happy and above all, a meaningful life devoid of nonsense. The future looks bright for many. Although Europe excels (in a patchy way) in all-faiths education where religions cannot stamp their particular dogmas over science education, this is not the case in much of the rest of the world, so there is much work yet to do in combatting anti-science religiosity.”
In Islam, the formation of the Qur'an followed a similar path. Muhammad instructed his followers not to write down his teachings, but to pass them on. However it became necessary to write them down because during war, many of the caliphs who had memorized the Suras were killed, and people feared that the Koran would be lost for good, so it was written down. Previously leaders kept their own collections according to their own will, hence the religion was less legalistic as a whole, but after time official collections of Suras came to dominate all others. In brief, Islam rapidly became literalistic, and once there it seems the way back is permanently blocked. Those official words became unarguable doctrine, debatable only under pain of death. In Christianity fundamentalist literalism is extreme. In Islam, it is the norm almost everywhere38.
The Muslim world has never (apparently!) produced any critical analysis of the texts of the Qur'an and the Hadiths, in the manner of serious academic investigation to its sources and generation - what is called "Higher Criticism". There is lots of Arabic commentary on the sources, oral transmission, and respectability of individual verses and hadiths and this is invaluable, but, all of them are from the point of view that the canon is holy. Their starting point is literalist and accepting, rather than neutral. Because of their conclusions, all of the scholars that we know about who ventured forth with impartial analysis have been shunned, punished, silenced and even when they have fled their countries of origin, have found themselves harassed even in Western countries. It sometimes feels as if Western scholars are going to have to do the entire historical analysis themselves, but relying on the most fragmentary historical data (as most of the evidence is lost).
“Higher Critical scholarship of the Koran, using methodologies adapted from biblical criticism, is still largely confined to scholars working in Western universities. So sensitive is this area for Muslims that `Ibn Warraq´, a Muslim-born writer trained in Arabic who accepts the findings of radical Western scholarship, has felt it necessary to publish his work under a pseudonym. [...] The Egyptian academic Nasr Abu Zaid, who ventured to use modern literary critical methodology in his approach to the Koran, was forced into exile. Higher criticism of the Koran, where the text is deconstructed in accordance with methods developed by biblical scholars since the 18th century, is still very largely confined to scholars who are not Muslims. Examples include the work of John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, and Gerald Hawting, Western scholars of Islam who do not accept the traditional view of its origins as related in the earliest texts.”
Luther, Calvin and the Reformation in general, which saw the rise of Protestantism as a reaction against the widespread abuse of power by the Catholic Church, allowed Christians to go back in search of their moral roots. However the result was not a strengthened body of Christianity. Local languages came to be spoken in sermons rather than the Latin that the churchgoers did not understand. Bibles were produced and consumed in English and in common languages. People could read the scriptures for themselves! It was a disaster for the centralized church.
“The legacy of the religious innovations of Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers strengthened and hastened a variety of social changes which we can understand under the general heading of individualism and which we can see in changes to styles of worship and religious music. [...] Power shifted from religious professionals to the laity ... because it removed the institution of the Church as a source of authority between God and man. [...] ”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996) [Book Review]40
New problems arose. People could now disagree strongly, and both argue from scripture that their side was correct. Literalism was made possible. Beliefs became debatable. Steve Bruce shows us that now, in the Western history of Christianity, "Believing in the right things came to be more important than making the right ritual actions"40.
The de-centralisation of the Reformation allowed fundamentalism. The emphasis of evangelical groups on local church autonomy and individual correct belief was not possible while central officers asserted what was right and wrong. Richard T. Antoun in "Understanding Fundamentalism" says the response to this loss of central control left believers on their own to engage in "the quest for purity, the search for authenticity, totalism and activism, the necessity of certainty (scripturalism)"33, the result being an explosion in schismatic fundamentalist groups, frequently fracturing into yet more groups over variant interpretations of scripture. The ground was left wide open for extremism in the defence on one's own views.
In today's complicated and globalized world, migration and multiculturalism have become the norm. Religion has become a private affair because there is no shared, public religion. Individuals find themselves presented with many foreign religions and cultures, and in these circumstances one's own religion can find itself at the forefront of one's own self-definition even though previously it was a minor technicality. In the sociological analysis of why the USA has such high rates of strict religion for a developed country, this concept became known as "cultural transition and defence", as formulated by Steve Bruce41, explaining how defensiveness can bolster religiosity.
The coming-together of different religions results in much less certainty in religious ideas. It is especially hard for laypeople to explain the things they supposedly believe in. Because of these challenges, belief has massively declined but those who still remain firm are more committed than ever to their religious identities - often irrationally so. The central majority of a religion often works to reign-in extremists, through social pressure. As the central mass of believers dwindle in numbers, the growth of fundamentalist and extremist factions continues unchecked.
“The very fact of being challenged means that those who do choose to believe will often do so with an intensity and enthusiasm which would have surprised those of early periods who simply took their faith for granted. As we see in the efforts of the Methodists or the Scottish Free Church evangelicals, the challenge to evangelize can inspire a powerful movement, but what is gained in individual intensity is lost in background affirmation. Becoming religious is attended by more dramatic behaviour consequences, but fewer people do it. There are now more zealots but fewer believers.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996) [Book Review]42
The move of much of the developed world to a non-religious outlook has seen nation-states and institutions embrace technology, science and evidence-based logic instead of revelation. Those with a fundamentalist bent have clung to religion all the more tightly. As there are far fewer middle-ground religionists who can reign them in, fundamentalist groups are growing in power within most established religions, as well as forming brand new movements of their own. They find themselves in frequent battles with those of the world who do not share their views on life. Fundamentalists, and many other religious folk, raise many elements of human behaviour to matters of eternal life-or-death, and, consider some areas of life completely taboo, and consider some symbols so sacred that they will not tolerate any criticism of them. The opposite to this is secularisation, which is the general loss of public religion, and it is often combined with large-scale loss of knowledge about religions. So "when political authorities deal insensitively - as they often have - with the symbols of culture and religion, identity threats became, for many, intolerable" to the extent that they will react with violence44 Putting it more simply, Anthropologist Richard Antoun says "fundamentalism is a response to the questioning of the great religious traditions... in the changing world"45.
A conference on violent extremism in Dublin was attended by around 60 former violent extremists including ex jihadists, ex neo-Nazis and ex gang members, as reported by The Economist (2011). They had a surprising amount in common no matter how much their former ideologies differed. They talked of abuse suffered as children, "absent fathers, households plagued by alcoholism, lonely teenage years and their frustrated desire to belong" and struggles with cultural and religious identity amidst migrating families.46. In the modern globalized world, people migrate and move faster than communal ties solidify. Therefore, the pace and some of the negative effects of globalisation can produce disaffected individuals with fewer reasons to behave well towards others around them.
The God of the Abrahamic religions, so far as it is concerned in The Bible, The Koran, and in history, hates opposing Gods. The Israelites are described as being commanded by God, time and time again, to wage war against and kill nonbelieving pagans because they dare to worship icons, fake gods, and any number of unapproved things. Worshipping wrongly is prohibited in the traditional Ten Commandments, and is consistently one of the most punished crimes in the holy texts of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The emphasis on correctness of individual belief and individual salvation has led monotheism down an intolerant and often violent path in history. The development that "insiders are correct" and "outsiders are wrong" is not a feature of simple tribal religions47, but this idea of correctness developed alongside literacy, especially in monotheistic religions, finding particular prominence in Christianity of the first century48. It made the new monotheism sectarian, schismatic and aggressive; social and moral laws were deemed inferior to the new emphasis on textual fundamentalism. It heralded a new type of religion, fundamentally hostile to all other religions.49
The aggressive stance towards others who believe "wrongly" did not only engender intolerance towards other religions, but, is the cause of the long series of wars and conflicts within Christianity. No other religion has spawned a machine such as the Inquisition, for example, designed to seek out and crush those whose beliefs differ from the official line by the smallest amounts. It has an impact on the way that Christian sects rise and fall - but it is worth noting that Islam and other religions where textual fundamentalism easily develops follow the same route. The sociologist Steve Bruce notes a general pattern - as a sect grows and includes more and more members, it is forced to gradually become more tolerant of diversity. "Some conservatives resist this direction and break away to form new purified conservative sects. The new mainstream becomes more liberal and declines further. The new sects grow until they too become increasingly denominational and mainstream, and so on"50.
Christians in history have been so discouraged from even studying other religions and cultures that their statements and opinions on others' faiths can be jaw-droppingly ignorant. What Horatius Bonar wrote in ~1850CE is a mild symptom of a serious problem with historical Christian culture: "There [cannot] be anything more hollow and unreal than religion without the Holy Spirit". What for some is merely a description of other religions as hollow and unreal is for others a license to suppress, murder and kill. Intolerance stems from the very core of the Abrahamic religion's stance on truth and tolerance.
“One remarks a singular contrast between the sacred books of the Hebrews, and those of the Indians. The Indian books announce only peace and gentleness; they forbid the killing of animals: the Hebrew books speak only of killing, of the massacre of men and beasts; everything is slaughtered in the name of the Lord; it is quite another order of things.”
"Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary"
Sigmund Freud's book Moses and Monotheism drew the same conclusions: the teachings of Moses are contrary to the peaceful co-existence of religions. "More recently, Bernard Lewis and Mark Cohen have argued that the modern understanding of tolerance, involving concepts of national identity and equal citizenship for persons of different religions, was not considered a value by pre-modern Muslims or Christians, due to the implications of monotheism. The historian G.R. Elton explains that in pre-modern times, monotheists viewed such toleration as a sign of weakness or even wickedness towards God"52. This irrational play-fighting with imaginary friends would be humorous and ridiculous, if it were not for the serious and deadly consequences it has had in history.
The polytheist pagans were naturally tolerant of others' gods, and not so sanctimonious as to consider others' gods 'wrong' or delusional. People worshipped as was appropriate for them in a certain locale or situation and not according to universal doctrines of declared truth.
“To the extent that the [Christian] religion has insisted over the centuries that its way is the only true way and/or that its myths are literally true, it has developed a militancy and a tendency toward fundamentalism.”
"Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East" by David Leeming (2004)53
In some ways, this matter of being "right" was a concern unique to Christianity. The Roman Empire was populated with religions of all kinds: family religions, local religions, city religions, state religions. Virtually everyone in this mind-boggling complexity, except the Jews, worshipped numerous gods in numerous ways. So far as we can tell, this was almost never recognized as a problem. No one, that is, thought it was contradictory, or even problematic, to worship Jupiter and Venus and Mars and others of the "great" gods, along with local gods of your city and the lesser divine beings who looked over your crops, your daily affairs, your wife in childbirth, your daughter in sickness, and your son in his love life. Multiplicity bred respect and, for the most part, plurality bred tolerance. No one had the sense that if they were right to worship their gods by the means appropriate to them, you were therefore wrong to worship your gods. [...] But then came Christianity.”
“Typically, fundamentalists aim to cleanse 'false believers' from their midst, or to separate themselves from them. This is why fundamentalism sometimes leads to violence and usually leads to schism.”
Harriet A. Harris (2004)18
Do not think that religious tolerance in the classical era was at all liberal, compared to today's secular examples. The Roman Empire surely terrorized various religious minorities but it did for the most part permit all the others to exist peacefully. But after the rise of Pauline Christianity intolerance and oppression cast a shadow upon all other religions. Merely believing the wrong things on even obscure points of theology could result in torture and bookburning, and street battles between rival Christians.
“The emperor [Constantine] made it plain that he considered the escalation of doctrinal conflict among high-ranking Christians not only disruptive of Church unity, but disreputable and almost certainly unnecessary. Christ's enemies rejoiced at this disorder. Pagans openly taunted Christians about their internal battles. [...]
When he convened the Great Council of Nicaea, Constantine could not have imagined that the bishops would be meeting almost every year to rule on charges of criminal activity and heresy.”
"When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome" by Richard E. Rubenstein (1999)54
After witnessing the violent street battles and mob warfare between Christians of various flavours, a new Emperor, Julian, who succeeded the Arian Christian Constantine, wanted to restore the Roman Empire to paganism. He enjoyed initial support from the Empire, despite it having been mostly converted so far to Christianity.
“No doubt, the initial enthusiasm for Julian among some of the common people reflected their distaste for the scandalous disunity of the Church. Christianity had conspicuously failed to bring the empire together or to secure it from enemy attack. As the contemporary historian Ammianus said, "no wild beasts are such enemies to mankind as are most Christians in their deadly hatred of one another."”
"When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome"
Richard E. Rubenstein (1999)55
Diocletian was sole Roman Emperor from 284-302. During the rise of Christianity amongst the populace, he witnessed the increasingly uncivil behaviour of converted Christians. He asked why Jesus' followers could not simply live and let live.
“Diocletian could not fathom why the belief in one God should separate the followers of Jesus from other Romans. [...] To question the existence of other gods, worse yet, to brand them demonic spirits, was rude and divisive. A Roman who worshipped the Olympian gods would never call a devotee a Serapis or Isis an atheist or demon worshipper. [...] Why insult one's neighbours by denigrating their deities? [...] The Christians' attitude seemed fanatical, like that of the Jews.”
"When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome"
Richard E. Rubenstein (1999)56
The emergent Christian orthodoxy grew up to become responsible for wiping out many thousands of "heretics", such as the Ebionites and Arians, for not believing the right things about the physical fathership of Jesus, the gnostics, the Marcionites who didn't believe in the Hebrew scriptures, the Waldenses, the Cathars, the Jews and many other unfortunate victims who fell foul of the Mosaic creed of "no other god before Jehovah".
Yet Christianity started out tolerant and peaceful: the first Christians, the gnostics and ebionites, accepted respectively that their religion was one interpretation of the truth amongst many, or that it was a devout, personal path and not something that could be enforced on to others. Centuries later, though, the Nicene Christians arose and murdered their more peaceful predecessors, burning their books and preparing Christianity to embrace the Dark Ages like no other religion could have, or would have.
Modern Judaism does not lend itself to violence or extremism58. In history it has proven to be the most peaceable Abrahamic religion. Nonetheless Judaism has still amassed a monstrous catalogue of horrors in its name. If the stories of the Bible can be believed, the founding of Judaism occurred amidst pointlessly murderous battles with the rightful native inhabitants of Canaan and huge numbers of Biblical statements can be used to support violence and aggression in the name of religion. In history, Jewish nations conducted forced conversion en masse59. Modern terrorist incidents have also centered on the struggles to control land that has special religious significance for Jews in Israel. Extremist groups in the West Bank have executed violent terrorist campaigns against Palestinians and other campaigns have occurred against the Temple Mount60,61,62,63,64. Today, mainstream Judaism and the government of Israel speak out consistently and strongly against extremism, but the Haredim (ultra-conservative Orthodox Jews) are still growing in number and can be found aggressively trying to segregate the genders, enforcing strict rules of dress on others and banning free access to secular reading material especially via the Internet.”
So here are verses from the Hebrew Scriptures that endorse violence and murder:
The Hebrew Scriptures, which the Christians adopted as their Old Testament, are infamously violent. The endorsements of violence, mass murder and rape & pillage are dramatic, and are conducted under the direct commands of God for the betterment of the believer's religion. The worry is that this gives justification for anyone who hears voices in their head telling them to murder for their religion that actually they should do so. Many Jewish terrorists have followed this line of logic, and for hundreds of years Europe fell into the barbaric and ignorant dark ages under the terrible machinations of Christian institutions that embraced and used all of the Bible's endorsements of violence.
Exodus 15:3 states that God loves war, but it is not just enemy combatants that are the target. Exodus 22:18 has been used as the basis for murdering women accused of all manner of daft superstitious things ("thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"). Exodus 32:27-29 has the God of Israel command the army to murder sons, brothers, friends and neighbours and they are then blessed for doing so. In Numbers 31:17 they are told to murder all the children amongst the enemies and any woman who might be pregnant. Deuteronomy 7:1 tells the Israelites to occupy their future land and exterminate the original inhabitants because they are infidels: "you're to make no compromise with them or show them any mercy". Deuteronomy 13:6-9 says that if your relatives or friends try to get you to worship other gods, you must kill them "without mercy" - a deed that Abraham attempts in Genesis 22:1-18. In Deuteronomy 20:16-18 they are told to exterminate "everything that breaths". Joshua 6:21-24 and Judges 20 tell stories where God wants them to kill "everyone in the city, men, women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep and donkeys. ... And they burnt the city with fire" and looted all they could. All with no morality nor sense of loss at all. 1 Samuel 15:1-8 has it that because the indigenous people of Amalek opposed God's murderous army, they killed all the men, women, children, babies, cattle, camels and donkeys there65. Not all the slaughter is on God's chosen land: In Esther 9:12-16 the Israelites slaughter over 75,000 enemies in an internal strife in the Persian empire. In Hosea 13:16 the infants of Samaria will be "dashed in pieces" because the people no longer follow Israel's bloody God. If you are in any doubt that God commands bloodshed in his name then Jeremiah 48:10 declares that you will be cursed if you refrain from bloodshed. These examples are where it is Humans carrying out God's will and don't include the many times where God leads by murderous example.
For more, see: Endorsement of Violence and Murder in the Old Testament.
Some think that the New Testament is nicer than the OT. They are correct; it was written in much more enlightened times. But the NT still endorses violence and murder. Jesus himself declared "think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). But for what ends is this violence to be executed? Luke 14:23 says "Compel people to come in!" for the purpose of "filling" the Church. And henceforth, Christian history contains many unfortunate chapters where Christian groups anathematized one another as heretics, and proceeded to burn, torture and murder those who disagreed. Victims have been anyone who disagreed even on confusing technical points of Christian doctrine, members of other religions such as Muslims and Jews, "witches", homosexuals, and finally, a small number who have genuinely plotted against the Church.
“The death sentence is a necessary and efficacious means for the Church to attain its end when rebels act against it and disturbers of the ecclesiastical unity, especially obstinate heretics and heresiarchs, cannot be restrained by any other penalty. [...] If there be no other remedy for saving its people it can and must put these wicked men to death.”
Pope Leo XII66
Aside from the New Testament's endorsement of killing in the name of religion, God itself leads by example. The Book of Revelation is the climax of the New Testament. God reverts to his Old Testament ways. The suffering and pain described in the apocalypse is something that a good god could never let happen. Some excerpts:
Revelation 6:8 (the 4th seal) "I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Revelation 9:15 (the 6th seal) "And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind".
Revelation 4th Seal and 6th Seal. Here's a quick calculation assuming an initial population of 6 000 000 000:
1/4 are killed when the 4th seal is opened: 1/4 of 6.0 billion is 1.5 billion, leaving 4.5 billion survivors.
1/3 are killed then the 6th seal is opened: 1/3 of 4.5 billion is 1.5 billion, leaving 3.0 billion survivors.
Exactly half of Humankind are killed, and this calculation uses only two of the seven seals!
It is an incredibly difficult task to explain to Christians who decide to kill in god's name that they are in fact going against the Bible, because this is simply not the case.
For more, see: Is the Christian God Evil? Evidence from Scripture and Nature.
This horrible xenophobia is not confined to the Hebrew Scriptures; the New Testament continues the theme. Matthew 10:34-37 and Luke 12:51-53 repeat the theme that Jesus says "I am not come to send peace, but a sword" and comes to divide families and set them against each other. In the First Epistle of John warns that having wrong beliefs made you worthless before God, and disposable as a human being (1 John 5:1-5,10). 2 John says that if you don't have the right beliefs about the relationship between Jesus-as-god and Jesus-as-man then you are godless (2 John 1:7-9), and Christians can't greet you politely nor welcome you in to church or home (2 John 1:10-11). Just to greet people with wrong beliefs, says 2 John, is to be in league with evil! This has no doubt helped encourage the intolerant and fundamentalist streams in Christian history. The entire book of Jude is dedicated to preaching that those who have erroneous beliefs are ungodly and need to be rescued. All of these verses and many like them set the scene for such institutions as the Inquisition, torturing and burning those who had even the slightest variance of belief from what the Church wanted them to have.
See "Growing Fundamentalism in Islam: How Moderates are Subjugated by Muslim Hardliners" by Vexen Crabtree (2013) for the text on this topic. The menu:
Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs have better and more peaceful histories especially when it comes to religious tolerance. Polytheism is much more naturally tolerant towards having 'others' worship 'other' god(s). In a book on religion and globalisation, Prof. L. Kurtz writes:
“Buddhist tolerance of other religions and its custom of private worship tended to promote a general lack of specific alliance with political elites. [...] One of the most interesting early developments in Buddhism was the conversion of the Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C.E.. After the conversion of the bloody conquest of most of South Asia, he became a Buddhist. Horrified at the consequences of the wars he had conducted, Ashoka became legendary for his support of Buddhist institutions, his efforts to lead a nonviolent life, and most of all for his "Golden Age" rule, which promoted religious tolerance and high ethical standards. Although not a strict pacifist, Ashoka was opposed to warfare and animal sacrifice and became a vegetarian.”
Ashoka taught multicultural and multi-religious tolerance, 2300 years ago, saying that it is better to support all religions rather than just to support your own. If you only support your own and try to harm other religions, you are "digging a grave" for your own too. This applies, he says, to those who think "I will glorify my own religion" but not others. This wise attitude could not be further from monotheism's "no other gods" doctrines.
The times when Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs have caused violence and terrorism in the name of the religions has generally come from times when they are repulsing multiculturalism (unfortunately placing beliefs ahead of morality). They haven't displayed the internal struggles and sect-based oppression that mainstream Christianity and Islam has.
Buddhism, of all the major world religions, has the greatest record for peace and morality. Christianity, Islam and other religions' more peaceful elements at their best only ever come to be equal to Buddhist movements. Compared with other powerful religions, Buddhism is calm in theory and in practice, although other religions such as the Bahá'í Faith make a good drive in a similar direction, they are small in size. Nonetheless, various forms of Buddhism in various times have been instruments of war and violence. Buddhist sects have argued and fought over doctrine, over populations and methods, over pride and national independence. In Sri Lanka and Thailand the majority of the populace are Therevada Buddhist and they are both noted as places where Buddhist-inspired violence has prevailed over Buddhist-inspired peace69.
“Conze has argued [...] that 'some of the success of the [Tibetan Buddhist] Gelug-pa [sect] was due to the military support of the Mongols, who, during the seventeenth century, frequently devastated the monasteries of the rival Red sects. The long association of Japanese Zen Buddhism with military prowess and aggressive imperialism has already been noted... [...] and Trevor Ling has argued that South-East Asian Buddhist kingdoms were as militarily aggressive and self-seeking as any others. Walpola Rahula [describes] a war of national independence in Sri Lanka in the second century BC conducted under the slogan 'Not for kingdom, but for Buddhism'”
Buddhism has integrated itself with governments and found itself manipulating the populace just as many other religions have done.”
“After the Meiji Restoration feudalism was replaced by a State dedicated to overseas expansion, and the Zen establishment found a new role in nurturing absolute obedience to it and supporting imperial wars of conquest. In the 1930s Zen Masters occupied themselves more and more with giving military men Zen training [...]. The events of this military epoch in the history of Zen have been chronicled by Ichikawa Hakugen, a Zen priest and professor at Kyoto's Hanazono University, who in books like The War Responsibility of Buddhists, condemned Zen's (and his own) collaboration with Japanese fascism.”
Polytheistic religions such as Hinduism are naturally more inclusive towards others' beliefs and practices and this bears out in international statistics, and is an argument seized upon by Hindus to argue that their religion does not have a problem with extremism72. Indeed it tends to get ignored by the Western press and Hindu fundamentalism is simply "less well known than Christian or Muslim fundamentalism"73. But over the last few decades Hindu revivalism in India has shown fundamentalist tendencies10. "Some among India's Hindu nationalist reformers have also insisted on the need to establish a nation-state grounded on Hindutva, or 'Hinduness', presented as the authentic culture of the majority"74 and "Hindu nationalists have at times taken violent action against Muslims and Christian missionaries, in defiance of official state policies"75. Recent years have seen this trend continue. When a 2007 Indian film was released covering incidences of communal riot, it wasn't shown in one state (Gujarat) for fear of retaliation by Hindu activists76. Take, for example, an incident in 2015 that saw a mob of 1,000 Hindus attack a small family of Muslims in India: A rumour had broken out that a cow had been slaughtered. Vigilantes from Save the Cow prompted a mob to appear on site, and proceeded to, amongst themselves, blame a nearby Muslim family (no slaughtered cow was found). They appeared at the house, where the family were sleeping, and beat the husband to death and left his boy in critical condition in hospital. The press got involved and Save the Cow explained their religious duty as Hindus to protect cows, which are sacred. A local politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party, Lakshmikant Bajpayee, defended the mob saying that there had a been a failure of local police to respond to the rumour adequately77. The issues are (1) that the slaughter of a cow - even if it had actually happened - is none of the business of local Hindus. It doesn't matter that they consider it sacred - other people do not. And (2), they should not be trying to force others to follow their own superstitions. Likewise, politicians should not be encouraging them - they should be representing all citizens including those with non-Hindu beliefs. Entire communities and cultures are being negatively affected by religious nonsense. Jack Donnelly in "Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice" (2013) highlighted that Hindu extremism has become "an impediment to the exercise and enjoyment of internationally recognized human rights"78 ”
In a similar vein of anti-multiculturalism (which also indicates general intolerance of those with alien beliefs), Sikh violence under the militant Bhindranwale, once saw hundreds of innocent Hindus killed, in attempts to assert Sikh identity in a Hindu nation79.
Fundamentalism is rising to power within otherwise moderate or liberal Christian communities. It has been happening since the very beginnings of second century Christian literalism. Many Christian groups do oppose this growing fundamentalism, but their resistance is too slow, too little and too polite... too liberal, too pacifist. If the Church of England, especially its upper management, was to oppose this fundamentalism, the Church would split and the liberals would be financially bankrupt. To guard against this eventuality, Western democracies governments should limit faith schools, and enforce the separation of Church and State so as the fundamentalists gain more power they are powerless to harm society in general.
This topic has been given more interest recently, three respectable books that touch on this are listed below. The voluminous book 'Social Trends in Britain since 1900' can be used to view the raw data that some of these books have also used:
"The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach" by Moojan Momen (1999) [Book Review] notes the rise of fundamentalism as part of universal trends throughout the history of religion. Extreme fundie groups are led by charismatic leaders, then gradually over time their fundamentalism decreases, and a new wave of more extreme groups rise.
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996) [Book Review] notes the same trend in Christianity in the last century, noting that existing fundie groups have become more liberal, gradually, but that new more-extreme fundamentalist groups are the only growing part of Christianity.
"The C of E: The State It's In" by Monica Furlong (2000) [Book Review] makes the same notes on growing fundamentalist groups although the book is primarily concerned with the decline of the Church of England rather than the proportionally increasing sections within it.
Evangelical & fundamentalist groups within the Church of England include:
“A large number of studies agree that the growth of conservative Protestantism owes little to the recruitment of people who were previously atheists or even liberal Christians. The real difference lies in the retention of children. [...] A survey [...] showed that 72 percent of those who joined in a four-year period were moving from other evangelical churches. Only 28 percent were 'converts' and almost three-quarters of these were the children of evangelists. This suggests that the explanation for the different fate of the denominational and sectarian versions of Protestantism has more to do with the ability to retain children rather than attractiveness to outsiders.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996) [Book Review]80
Unless the liberals within religion perform a never-before-seen coup, these trends will continue in the West. The evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to be intensely organized and motivated, whereas the liberals and mainstream adherents are more laid back, living more peacefully. "One embittered liberal rector of a London parish said yesterday: 'The trouble is that the evangelicals are so much better organised than we are. We need to get our act together' "81.
Anglican Mainstream (despite the title, this is a fundamentalist group) and other evangelical groups are funded by rich American evangelical churches that are largely business orientated and middle-class populated. This more-worldly outlook is opposed to moderate Christianity which does not generally pursue business interests and sometimes actively shuns commercialism. Of course this has, unfortunately for the Anglicans, resulted in a history of financial mismanagement. Modern, growing, forms of Christianity have a much better grasp of financial kung-fu.
Sociologists and insiders writings on the Church of England, such as Monica Furlong and Rowan Williams himself, have commented that there is a possible fragmentation of the Anglican Church into Evangelical (and other) groups82. The remaining liberal core, what is traditionally considered to be the center of the C of E, will be bankrupted. It is only the evangelical branches that can financially hold their own. After a series of serious financial scandals ten years ago, after which it reformed its financial management and even lent some of this management to secular businessmen, the Church of England has not been financially comfortable. It is selling churches and property, reducing paraphernalia, and increasingly sharing its staff across multiple sites.82
“Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.”
"The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce (1967)
This section is about fundamentalists who consider their religious text of choice to be completely free of error, human invention or fantasy (i.e., inerrant). In particular I have in mind Christian fundamentalists who consider the Bible to be inerrant, and Muslims who consider the Koran to be inerrant. How do such people arrive at the decision that their text is infallible, and what logical problems does this incur? Do they take the text more or less seriously than liberals?
Fundamentalists largely hold that their scripture is the only authority we have as regards to the truth: It is an absolute truth. However, in order to select which text they consider inerrant there must first be non-scriptural basis for this selection. Before a person considers a text inerrant, they are in a position where their position in the world dictate their knowledge of religious texts and their approach to them. These secular and coincidental factors determine whether a person comes to decide that a text is inerrant.
“Koran, n. A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.”
"The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce (1967)
The philosopher Immanuel Kant made the same argument in 1785 with regards to believers choosing that the God of the Bible is indeed a being of moral perfection: "Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognise Him as such"83. It is an illogical situation that once a fundamentalist has chosen a text, they then deny that they have no other source of authority: If there is no source of authority other than the text they've chosen, then their reason for selecting the text has become invalid. Beyond this point of self-contradiction it can be seen that the reasons are complex psychological ones.
Fundamentalists have been unable to arrive at a logical criterion for how a secular living person should select which text is true out of all the religious texts available in the world, all of which have adherents who claim their chosen books are inerrant.
Through Prophecy? All claim that correct prophecies validate their text, and all claim that all the other texts don't really have correct prophecies. It is impossible to investigate all such claims yourself, in one lifetime, so it appears that a logical intellectual choice based on prophecy is impossible. Or it is ignorant: A choice can't be made without ignorance until a person has actively investigated all claims of prophecy by all religious texts. Until the individual has done this, they're merely guessing which one can be judged, by criteria of its prophecies, to be "more" divine than other texts.
Sensible possibility: That God has inspired multiple correct prophecies in multiple religious texts or that magic operates as part of the natural laws of the universe, and supernatural prophecy-making is possible whether or not God has a part in it. Of all the prophecies that have not come true (such as the thousands made about the end of the world, etc), you could very sensibly infer that any true prophecies are only true by coincidence and luck, not by supernatural means. In all cases, it can be seen that judging religious texts by their prophecies is a poor method.
Through Faith? Decisions by "faith" are determined in 99% of cases by cultural and societal factors, by psychology, and not by virtue of which text is true. Faith is a cultural and psychological phenomenon. Or, of course there is the chance that a God does actually support multiple (even contradictory) religions, and therefore that it doesn't really matter which one you pick.
Through Morals? It is circular logic to claim that a text is an absolute authority on morals, and then to claim that you can judge a text by the morals contained in it, before knowing which text is true. If you assume particular morals, then look at religious texts, you will end up selecting the text that most matches your own morals. If you select a text then claim that its morals are absolutely correct, you could have drawn exactly the same conclusion no matter which religious text you'd selected. The factors which determine which one you select in the first place are therefore purely cultural and psychological - not moral. We have no rational basis for claims of what morals God considers best. Selection by morals is a fundamentally flawed selection criteria, requiring either genuine stupidity, ignorance or doublethink.
By Popularity? If you judged by popularity you would conclude that at the moment the Christian text is 'absolute' and correct. But, in previous centuries, Roman paganism was absolute and correct, and before that, the animist worship of multiple simple spirits was the correct set of beliefs. It makes no sense that to say that now, at the moment, a particular religion is true merely because it is popular. Especially given that within a religion such as Christianity, there are many varied beliefs. To base claims on popularity is to undermine the idea that one particular religion has correct beliefs.
Despite what some religious folk claim, especially Christians and Muslims, it simply isn't possible to have a "Book of Truth" that can be read objectively, with a share meaning agreed upon by everyone, especially when it comes to moral instruction and ethics. It is impossible to derive "absolute morals" from holy books like The Bible and The Qur'an. Unfortunately, because many religionists think that correct interpretation is of extreme importance, then, all these different possible conclusions lead to schism and the formation of competing denominations, often violently opposed to others who haven't come to the same conclusions.
Language: When we read, our brains interpret the words according to our understanding of language. Prof. Loughlin warns about this when it comes to lawmaking. He says "language has an open-textured quality", "there is an inherent vagueness in the ordinary use of language [...] and, because of this, rules - even if we accept that they have a core of settled meaning - are often surrounded by a penumbra of uncertainty [... and] often acquire meaning within particular contexts"84.
Subjectivism: Our own wild experiences in life, our own flawed understandings, both conspire continually to colour everything we see in the world. In epistemology, this basic fact is called subjectivism and the subjective nature of our perception of reality is one of the oldest topics in human philosophy, going back thousands of years85.
Our brain is an imperfect organic machine, not a mystical repository of truth. Our senses are imperfect, our point of view limited, and the reality we experience is never the total picture. Human thought is infused with systematic thinking errors. We can logically deduce that any given experience may be untrue, and any particular thought could be a mistake. The result is that our total take on reality is a mix of guesses and patchwork. No two people ever experience the same event or thing in the same way, because the complexities and depths of their errors and assumptions are different for every person: every event is experienced slightly differently. No-one has precisely the same point of view on any event.”
Personal Bias: When people approach a religious text or any large book from which they intend to derive ethical teachings, nearly without exception the person will pick up the book and pay very particular attention to all the morals they already agree with. The philosopher George Smith says that "Christian theologians have a strong tendency to read their own moral convictions into the ethics of Jesus. Jesus is made to say what theologians think he should have said"86. A homophobe will pick up the Christian Bible and realise that homosexuality is an evil sin. A misogynist will pick up the Bible or Qur'an and realise that after all this time he's right: Women are inferior, and he can quote the Bible or Qur'an to prove it. A fluffy liberal will read it and find all the hippy love-thy-neighbour bits and therefore will be able to prove that all those homophobes and misogynists have it wrong. In arguing against extremism, Neil J. Kressel points out that "everyone picks and chooses, at least a little. Everyone interprets"87.
Complexity and Contradictions: Long texts that dance with moral issues suffer from the problem that some morals in one place step on the toes of other morals in other parts. The debates over which verses have precedence over others is a major symptom of this issue. In addition because of the volume of text and its frequent obscurity and complexity, there is plenty of scope for the imagination, and for personal bias, to find a way to interpret lines in a way that beat to the drum of the reader. Because of the kaleidoscope of different plotlines and levels of possible interpretation, one's subconscious and imagination is given accidental freedom to invent all kinds of morals.
Most Holy Books' Texts is Not About Morals: Most stories in holy books are about personalities - tales about what people are said to have done what. Most of them also involve war and cultural struggles between different peoples, and are often written from within one particular geographical area. It is possible to read these stories and take out of them a wide range of morals, and therefore, to think that these indirect lessons have divine mandate. The same occurs with all long texts. Take Tolkien's Lord of the Rings - it is very much like the Bible (in style), and it is clear to see that you could spend your entire life analyzing it for morals. Many people who undertook such a task would come to different conclusions, just as with Holy Books. The simple fact remains that the parts of the text that say "Here follows a moral rule, to be obeyed by all people for all time" are very infrequent indeed. The Qur'an is much more frank than the Bible, but is still mostly about the retelling of events.
See if you can work out if the following questions are being raised with regards to The Lord of the Rings, The Bible, or the Qur'an:
The people in the book all have their own aims, which are relevant to the topic of the book and the life circumstances of that person. Most people's actions are simply not centered around any wish to provide universal instruction on behaviour - it's all about their problems at that time.
Using characters from within this book we would find many seemingly contradictory morals. For example, for the side of Good, there is much killing to be done, yet part of the morals is that the bad guys kill people.
People interpret the "real meanings" behind various stories in hugely varying ways, and volumes of books have been written on such interpretations based on political and moral undertones.
The answer is that this describes all large books written by Humans. Attempts to read them as places for moral instruction is itself the problem, and the cause of schism, violent disagreements and fundamentalism.
Cultural Context: As time passes, the original cultural assumptions and cultural understanding of phrases and words will all change, making it impossible for many things to be understood by future audiences in the same way that the original authors meant them. The longer ago something was written, the less the context is clear to us today, and this opens the way for much culturally subjective opinion. "Love thy neighbour as thyself" has meant various things at various times: A land of barbarians may feel quite free to brutalize others just as they brutalize themselves88, whereas band of 1970s hippies spread love in a much more physical way. Over time, morals are simply read into texts differently, hence why religious prohibitions change over time too. We read text literally, chronologically and philosophically, but both The Koran and much of The Bible was written in prose, in poetry, using many symbolic aspects and word games. Shifts in time and place mean that there are unknown cultural references that we cannot possibly understand now, even if text that we think we are reading correctly.
Translations: All of the above problems come together when translations of holy texts are made. One thing that fundamentalists do get right is their determined and enviable attempts to read scripture in its original language (which is easier for Muslim Arabs who still speak the same language the Koran was written in). But we have very few of the original texts of our major religions. We rely on copies-of-copies-of-copies, which at some point, have often been translated - quotations changed from Aramaic to Greek, entire texts from Latin to English, based on Greek translations. We know that even from very early on numerous mistranslations have been introduced89, such as the mistaken usage of the word "virgin" to describe the prophecy of Jesus' birth since the major Septuagint translation.
It is surprising that anyone thinks a god would attempt to communicate with us in any particular language, let alone ancient ones. If I was god, I would transmit my message directly into everyone's brain. That way problems with translation and subjectivism would be removed and people could make informed decisions and moral choices based on the full facts, rather than miscommunicated ideals. This would end all translation and transmission problems too.
Clearly, no gods have imparted such a universal moral message into the minds of mankind. If there is a supreme and omniscient creator god then it is responsible for creating the way that our brains work. Such a being knows that we can only interpret life subjectively, and that no text will mean the same thing for any two people. Therefore by design, any sacred text must only be designed by God for the specific culture into which the text arose.
Religious scholars who interpret their own scripture have always claimed to value the correct understanding of religious texts91. But modern liberal academics have a host of new techniques available for analysing the meaning, context and authorship of those texts. These include methodical statistical analysis and careful computer-aided comparison of variants of ancient texts. Also, stories are best understood in their original context and address debates that were being had at the time of authorship. Very few can simply be read at face value. Without having entrenched opinions over what texts should mean, these scientific and critical approaches often result in conclusions that are incompatible with traditional interpretations. Academics have thusly faced very strongly-worded attacks upon their techniques and conclusions by traditionalists. Some adopt a defensive combatitive stance of their own; Robert M. Price states starkly that "we will show the superiority of our approach, not in destroying the Bible, but in better understanding the beloved text"91. It is ironic that by sticking to historical assumptions and traditional understandings, fundamentalists and literalists are not taking scripture as seriously as modern liberal academics.”
“In an internet video in September 2007 Abu Yahya al-Libi, a prominent al-Qaeda leader, mockingly gave the West six tips to wage ideological warfare: highlight the views of jihadists who renounce violence; publicise stories about jihadist atrocities against Muslims; enlist Muslim religious leaders to denounce jihadists as heretics; back Islamic movements that emphasize politics over jihad; discredit and neutralize jihadist ideologues; and play up personal or doctrinal disputes among jihadists. These would indeed be good starting-points.”
The extremists who attended the Dublin meeting as mentioned earlier, who found they had a lot in common in terms of broken families and the negative effects of globalisation, stated that another factor of modernism helped bring them back from the brink. Access to discussions, variant interpretations and debates over doctrine on the Internet was a major help, and they asked experts to promote these kinds of websites. Freedom of speech online undermines culturally assumed certainties which can be bad for religions but can also help undermine the certainties of extremists. Hence we return to our question above when we point out that bringing back religious certainty also brings back other problems.46
Good governance has the potential to promote social cohesion and tolerance, and therefore limit the spread of religious fundamentalism. Good practices should include:
Joining groups such as the National Secular Society allow you to take a more active and useful interest in secular politics, and so does bringing to our attention various local events.
However nonsensical you may consider New Age beliefs to be in general, their approach to religious tolerance is commendable. It is naturally peaceful. It does, however, have a shortcoming. Some beliefs and practices are deluded and wrong, and unfortunately the let-be attitude of many modern spiritualists leaves many people with few tools to determine what is actually true. The New Age veers so far towards unconditional acceptance that it loses its critical faculties. A half-way point is ideal: you allow intellectual debate, but in practice you do not actively discriminate between religious groups. Luckily, this is the model held at the heart of secular methods of governance.
Governments cannot return to the barbarism of history by trying to enforce one religion at the expense of others. It results in bloodshed and suffering. Democratic governance rules over all people, no matter what their beliefs are. Freedom of conscience and belief are democratic values, and they entail the separation of church and state. This allows and ensures religious freedom, as long no religion tries to 'capture the flag' and discriminate against others. If freedom is valued, one religion cannot discriminate against others even if they are compelled to by their creed. This keeps the monotheists and extremists within the reach of the law, and is the firm structure that allows pluralism to work, granting the greatest amount of intellectual and religious freedom and denying rights only to those who would reduce the freedom of others.
There is a better side to religion, and some religions and new religious movements have avoided developing fundamentalist streaks, by starting out with principles and morals that do not lend themselves to literalist extremism. Zen Buddhism specifically distances itself from other branches of Buddhism, claiming that Buddhist scholars are wasting their time while deliberating over the specific phrases and words used within Buddhist scripture.
“As the finger has no brightness whatever, so the Scripture has no holiness whatever. [...] Those who spend most of their lives in the study of the Scriptures, arguing and explaining with hair-splitting reasonings, and attain no higher plane in spirituality, are religious flies good for nothing but their buzzing about the nonsensical technicalities. [...]
Buddhist denominations, like non-Buddhist religions, lay stress on scriptural authority; but Zen denounces it on the ground that words or characters can never adequately express religious truth, which can only be realized by mind [...]. It is an isolated instance in the whole history of the world's religions that holy scriptures are declared to be 'no more than waste paper'.”
"Zen - The Religion of the Samurai" by Kaiten Nukariya (1913)94
Many powerful religions become oppressive, monstrous brutes. They annex schools and subvert national education to their own ends, they enforce strict moral codes in accordance with their beliefs, and sometimes even such as during the Christian Dark Ages, they violently and bloodily suppress dissent. During such times, minor religious groups have no choice but to argue for religious tolerance as a matter of self-survival. But even during less stressful centuries, it tends to be the tolerant small religions that become national celebrities whereas intolerant religions tend to whither away. Those who argue for religious freedom (whether they mean it or not) will become both popular and officially recognized, and all the new recruits will stand by the doctrine of toleration. So even if the original authorities really wanted religions to be considered equal, their followers will embrace such an idea. Therefore, the history of developing societies has been that growing religious movements are generally tolerant and existing institutionalized religions were normally oppressive. All of this occurs no matter if the underlying beliefs of the religion are open or closed to others' beliefs. This general trend can emerge even from exclusivist beliefs. The sociologist of religion Steve Bruce describes the example of the Secession and the Free Church:
“Despite having begun as firm believers in religious coercion, the Secession and the Free Church gradually came to argue for religious freedom, in defence first of their own rights, and then of the rights of dissenters generally; finally they came to see the value of the general principal of religious toleration. But the evolution was a slow and painful process, often scarred by the expulsion of those clergymen who promoted the cause of toleration ten years too early. [...]
There is no mystery about the circumstance which led to the reluctant acceptance of pluralism: their own failure to win over the majority of the Church of Scotland. Only when each wave of dissent realized that it could not succeed in taking over the instruments of state coercion did it begin to find the use of such instruments offensive.
Fission created a plurality of organizations and the divisions of the people of God meant that the price of enforcing conformity was too high for a modern democratic state. The consequence, quite undesired by most of those who brought it about, was religious toleration and the rise of the secular state.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996) [Book Review]95
So although some types of religion, such as polytheism, are naturally tolerant towards others' beliefs, and others such as Abrahamic monotheism (e.g. Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are largely hostile to 'heathens', the existence of different beliefs side-by-side has had the effect of eventually convincing everyone responsible of the benefits of peaceful pluralism. Although many religionists wish no such thing as to have others' beliefs made equal to their own, their voices are only heard in the first place because of the very secular principal of equality. When a singular religion becomes entrenched, and encroaches upon the arenas of public education and politics, though, a very dangerous possibility emerges: That its leaders, comfortable in power, will decreasingly see the need for tolerance. Secular government needs to always be cautious of a possible new dark age.
Most forms of Paganism and the New Age are accepting, tolerant and respectful towards other's beliefs and practices96. There is very little in the way of an impulse towards correcting others, telling them they're wrong and criticizing their beliefs. Even if two believers' theories about important aspects of their crafts are contradictory and impossibly conflicting, there is rarely much in the way of hatred, or even dislike, between them.
“Pagans believe that no one belief system is correct and that each person should have the freedom to come themselves to the path of their choice. [...] For all Pagans there is no place for either dogma or proselytising.”
Academic researchers have been pleased to note that although some of the these new religious movements emerged from within an anti-Christian milieu many groups simply never took up an aggressive stance, or, if they did, they mostly quickly moved on (within a few decades) to a neutral and tolerant stance. Pearson (2002) puts it like this: "Wiccans and Pagans have been, and are at present, involved in the development of interfaith meetings with members of other religions, and [...] no longer requires legitimization through false histories or hatred of the Christian Church"98.
It seems natural and ascendant that modern religions such as the various forms of Paganism and New Age-style belief systems should abandon strict claims about their exclusive access to truth. In a world where fundamentalism seems forever on the rise many new religious movements represent a better side of religion, free from powermongering and free from the urge to enforce its doctrines on people for their own good.
The text in this section is taken from "Modern Paganism (Neopaganism)" by Vexen Crabtree (2015).
So here is a simple scale proceeding then from the religions and institutions that have represented the most tolerant and moral approaches to religious diversity, to those who have historically been oppressive, against human rights, genocidal and intolerant of people with diverse beliefs:
Secular ideas of tolerance and individual human rights assure the greatest amount of freedom of religion, and secular ideals such as separation of church and state ensure that no religion is given undue prominence, and is therefore the most democratic and peaceable approach to religious tolerance. Embodying these ideas are pseudo-religions like Humanism.
Atheist religions such as Buddhism and morality-based philosophies of the East have by far the best record as far as human rights and tolerance go. Scientific pantheism and other modern ethical movements have the same potential as the secular approach.
Monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity are the undisputed champions of historical evil, and their class of religion smashes the bloodiest and most barbaric records throughout history. Theirs is a history of wars, genocides, internal witch hunts, oppression, lack of freedom of thought and lack of freedom of religion. Large denominations of monotheistic religions have eradicated smaller denominations for simply believing the wrong things. No other class of religion compares with monotheism in its tendency for intolerant violence.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source.
The Guardian. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?.
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